The good things in urban nature: An extended framework for nature engagement

Our latest article in Landscape and Urban Planning provides a thematic analysis of the good things in urban nature. The results are pioneering in that they begin to define the components of urban green space that have most value and meaning for urban citizens. I then combined the themes with the pathways to nature connectedness to produce a matrix of ‘micro-activities’. This provides a framework to inform many nature engagement activities, from social media content to urban planning – more on that later.

The research was part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby led the work package that developed the smartphone intervention that prompted users to notice the good things in urban nature each day for 7 days. We found that increasing connection to urban nature can bring clinically significant improvements in quality of life for those with living with a mental health difficulty – and bring significant benefits to all adults.

This research moves beyond our previous work by identifying common themes in the good things in nature that led to clinically significant improvements in wellbeing in an urban environment. Qualitative analysis of participants’ observations about the good things in urban green spaces revealed a number of themes.

The good things in urban nature

The dominant theme which emerged was participants’ wonder at encountering animals in day-to-day urban settings. Within this theme of appreciating urban nature, a large number of observations in the study related to the enjoyment of hearing bird song.

The second largest theme was that of expressing gratitude for street trees. The third most represented theme was the awe participants expressed at dramatic skies and views from high up looking down over the city. Minor themes included: green planting amongst built space; noticing flowering plants; mentions of water; natures beauty; feelings of awe and calm; . Of the main themes, it is interesting that biotic themes (e.g. Wonder at encountering animals; Gratitude for trees) had greater representation than abiotic themes (e.g. awe at dramatic skies and views). This may be indicative of our ‘biophilia’.

The good things in nature data and themes generated provide an insight to what people appreciate in urban nature. Therefore, when setting out to engage people with nature it is sensible to highlight them. Further, the pathways to nature connectedness provide a theoretical background and framework of the types of activity in nature required to improve nature connectedness. The themes and the pathways can be combined as each pathway activity can be developed around a theme of the good things in nature. Such matrix of themed activities can inform specific efforts to connect people to urban nature.

Indicative matrix of micro-activities from combining the good things in nature themes and pathways to nature connectedness to provide the micro-foundations for nature connectedness and inform activity programming, nature engagement media content, intervention and urban design. From https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.103687
Senses Emotions Beauty Meaning Compassion
Wonder at encountering wildlife Look out for and listen to wildlife Find wildlife that prompts joy and calm Note the beauty of wildlife. Consider what encountering wildlife means to you. Do something to care for wildlife
Gratitude for trees Take a moment to notice trees Find an awesome and calming tree Note the beauty of trees. Think about what trees mean to you. Do you have a favourite tree? Do something to care for trees.
Awe at dramatic skies and views Look up and out at the sky and views Notice how you feel as the sky changes. Different skies, different feelings? Take a moment to notice the beauty of clouds. What does your favourite view mean to you? What do the changing skies mean for nature and wildlife? How does nature change a view?
Green planting amongst built space Notice everyday nature in urban spaces. Compared to built spaces, how do green spaces feel? Notice the beauty of natural forms within the city. Use metaphors to describe plants in the city. What do plants in the city do for wildlife?
Flowering plants Take a moment to notice flowers How do flowers make you feel? Capture the beauty of flowers in words, images or music. Do different flowers mean different things? What do flowers do for wildlife?
Water Look at the movement of water, listen Notice how still and running water make you feel. Does the beauty of water depend on light? How can you use water to communicate a thought or idea? What can you do to help stop water pollution?
Nature’s beauty Find beautiful sounds in nature. What emotions does the beauty of nature bring? Why is nature beautiful? What does nature’s beauty symbolise? Can nature’s beauty bring care for nature?
Feelings/Emotions Look and listen for nature that brings calm and joy Complete a tick list of emotions in nature rather than wildlife Emotions are natural, are they beautiful? Does nature help regulate your emotions? How does it feel to do good for nature?

The matrix of 40 activities are indicative suggestions generated from combining the data themes and pathways. They aren’t intended to be exhaustive and provide example prompts for a wide range of nature connectedness focussed activities. Content for the matrix can be adapted or revised from differing perspectives such as mental health or urban planning through consulting experts and practitioners in those domains.

Given the basis in the pathways to nature connectedness and the good things in urban nature, the approach can be used for a variety of purposes around engaging adults with urban nature. For example, they can inform activity programming (especially when combined with a range of arts from photography to creative writing), social-media content for nature engagement and the design of green spaces.  As an example, an activity could be focussed on water, with elements that draw out the deeper relationships of the compassion and meaning pathways not seen when simply noticing the good things. The meaning theme provides a prompt for deeper reflection on why the good things in urban nature are inherently good, using metaphors to communicate these ideas. Therefore the water-meaning intersection provides a prompt for those involved in cultural programming in urban areas with access to water. Or, from the perspective of the urban planner or designer the water-meaning intersection provides a prompt to allow space for cultural programming close to water or specific infrastructure (e.g. social spaces, art installations, boardwalks) designed to to afford the activities and encourage deeper relationships between people and nature.

The results are pioneering in that they begin to define the components of urban green space that have most value and meaning for urban citizens; values and meanings that may strongly underpin an individual’s mental health given the results from associated research. Through combining the themes with the pathways to nature connectedness, the paper provides matrix of activities to prompt activity programming, nature engagement media content, interventions and urban design. Given the benefits to wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour, it is important to align the aspects of urban nature that people enjoy with activity programming, intervention design, policy makers’ and town planners’ views of how best to design and develop cities.

 

 

This blog is based on excerpts from a post-print of the published article available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.103687

About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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