Increasing numbers of people live in urban areas with limited access to green spaces and nature. Yet greenspaces are good for people. For example, they benefit physical health through enabling exercise, support mental wellbeing and they are also great for social activities. However, there are inequalities in access to greenspaces and nature, especially in areas of deprivation. The pandemic has highlighted inequalities, for example Natural England’s People & Nature Survey findings show that 71% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds are spending less time outside since March compared with 57% of white children. Similarly, children in households with lower income were more likely to be spending less time outdoors compared to those with greater income.
Access to nature is important and unequal, but what is access? Typically access to nature is considered from a physical perspective – the amount of greenspace, or distance to local greenspace and visits to nature – often measured in time spent or frequency. This is often referred to as connection to nature, but to me connection is ‘psychological access’ – a close emotional connection to nature, formally defined by the psychological construct of nature connectedness which brings it’s own benefits. Indeed nature connectedness has been found to be important over and above visits to and time in nature for certain well-being outcomes and pro-nature behaviours.
Research into the benefits of nature has tended to focus on physical access – time and visits are straightforward to measure, but psychological connection matters too. There are parallels here to moving beyond the biomedical model of health to the biopsychosocial model described by Engel back in 1977. The biomedical model of health essentially views people as separate from the environment and affected by events – visits to nature perhaps. The biomedical model is still dominant in some thinking about health.
The biopsychosocial model of health includes psychological and social factors and more recently a ‘One Health’ model of health in BMJ Global recognises that humans are embedded within the rest of the natural world where health depends on biology, psychology and nature – biopsychophysis to continue the model terminology.
Access to nature and connecting people with nature for human and nature’s wellbeing would seem to align with the ‘One Health’ perspective, but does our thinking on access to nature move beyond the traditional biomedical approach? From the biopsychosocial perspective there is little consideration of physical and psychological access to nature – indeed google returned no uses of ‘psychological access to nature’. The term ’emotional access to nature’ does have some limited use, but very little (5 returns) in the research literature.
There is though increasing recognition of the psychological nature connectedness and some important work in this area has been co-ordinated by Natural England. Connecting people with nature is one of four strategic programmes in Natural England’s recent policy paper. This sets out to ensure that there are ‘nature-rich’ places close to where people live, enabling ‘environmentally deprived’ communities access to nature on their doorstep so that they can ‘enjoy nature’. Enjoyment is emotional and physical access to nature on the doorstep (so that it is there to notice and enjoy everyday) is also a key part of developing a psychological connection.
Access wise, the positive news is that nature connectedness is more consistent across demographics where physical access may be compromised. It is relatively consistent across socio-economic groups (AB = 64; C1 = 60; C2 = 60; DE = 61) and levels in the non-Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population are much the same (61) as the BAME population (63). We can all have a love of nature, which is further reason for fair physical access.
Where nature connection does differ significantly is between men (58) and women (64). And between adolescents (47) or young adults compared to other age groups (63). So the question of access might be how do we help provide men and adolescents with emotional access and connection to nature?
As ever, it’s not straightforward. In the first instance, for some, nature is a place to help manage emotions, rather than develop an emotional connection. Recently, we published the results of our work with YMCA residents who took part in a 9-week programme delivered by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. The programme consisted of one full day per week getting involved with nature conservation skills in natural environments that participants had limited access to. The people taking part may have experienced homelessness, abuse, mental health problems, substance misuse, self-harm or exploitation. Those taking part talked of being ‘away’ from the stressors of complex lives and finding emotional space and calm. Given their circumstances, nature was a place away, a place to help manage emotions rather than develop an emotional connection – although a growing respect for nature did start to emerge.
We know that some people find managing their emotions difficult and in other research we’ve found that easier emotional regulation plays a part in explaining how nature connectedness benefits wellbeing. Further, the benefits from easier emotional regulation were not associated with those from emotional engagement, highlighting the different roles and reasons for psychological access to nature.
In sum, rightly so, there is a growing focus on overcoming the barriers to physical access to nature for health and to help manage emotions for mental wellbeing. But physical access is also a step to psychological access to nature and emotional connection for worthwhile and sustainable living. Just as the biopsychosocial model gives a better understanding of health, a more nuanced understanding of access can deliver better outcomes – with benefits to physical health, mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.
Richardson, M., Richardson, E., Hallam, J., & Ferguson, F. J. (2020). Opening doors to nature: Bringing calm and raising aspirations of vulnerable young people through nature-based intervention. The Humanistic Psychologist, 48(3), 284–297. https://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000148