The final report of the National Parks and AONBs Landscapes Review has been published and several elements within it are highly relevant to nature connectedness research and application. For example, the report states that currently ‘The purpose to connect people to nature, and its execution, is too weak’ and proposal 7 states that ‘We need our national landscape bodies to lead the charge in connecting more people to nature’. To do this there needs to be a clear vision of what connection people to nature is – is it simply visits? Or is that connection a long-term relationship for human and nature’s wellbeing?
The good news is that the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has developed a framework to connect people with nature and we’ve applied that nationally – and further afield. The final report also cites our work with The Wildlife Trusts on 30 Days Wild, where we found that the least connected to nature benefit most, which motivates the need to reach out and engage with those people yet to develop a close relationship with nature. Importantly, those benefits are to both people and nature – wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.
Let’s look at some of the proposals in the report that link through to nature connectedness research.
Proposal 1 includes a stronger purpose for nature and beauty driven by a new National Landscapes Service. Our research has shown that engaging with nature’s beauty is both a pathway to becoming connected with nature and a route to wellbeing. Further, our work has shown that the public can spot biodiversity and greater biodiversity gives more nature (and beauty) to notice.
The National Landscapes Service (Proposal 25) would ‘Promote consistent, high quality standards in our special places, including overseeing a new professional ranger service and visitor experience’ and ‘Ensure best practices become common everywhere’. This should include an understanding of what a connection with nature is, the difference to contact with nature and how to achieve it using carefully designed engagement activities.
Proposal 8 (supported by the Proposal 13 ranger service) is ‘A night under the stars in a national landscape for every child’. This has made the headlines, but one night doesn’t make a relationship. To meet the aim to connect more people with nature a one-off experience won’t work. It could provide a catalyst, and done well, with a follow-up programme, could be used to develop a closer relationship with nature. This proposal needs to be based on the latest research evidence, rather than falling into traditional approaches that haven’t prevented the current environmental emergency and disconnected population.
The proposal continues: “They should learn how landscapes have inspired generations of artists, poets and musicians. They themselves should be inspired by the lives of their forebears, who have forged this countryside and whose very existence is written into the cultural landscape, and above all they should learn how they too can pick up the baton of nurturing and enhancing what they have inherited. With help from a new National Landscapes Service, we would like to see national landscapes work with the many organisations already involved in this area to provide a clear, consistent offer for a meaningful visit that we think should include an overnight stay. It would be a chance for children to meet others from communities they may not normally meet, to learn about the nature that we all rely on, and even enjoy the thrill of a night under the stars.”
There’s a focus on learning when there’s little evidence that knowledge and education deliver the over arching aim of a connection with nature. Rather than a focus on learning, there should be a focus on creating art, poetry and music – through noticing nature, its beauty and telling the story of the meaning and feelings it brings. Rather than a focus on learning the history, help nurture and enhance the present – caring for nature is a pathway to connection. Create a new culture of celebrating our place in nature.
Rather than ‘a meaningful’ visit, create a meaningful relationship. Once again there’s a proposal to ‘learn about nature’, instead, bring the enjoyment and wonder of the natural world to the fore. Find stars in the everyday, in the cobwebs, in the leaves, in the birdsong – in the nature children will find everyday at home.
Proposal 10 is for ‘Landscapes that cater for and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing’. We know that nature is good for people; we’re no different from other species in needing the habitat we evolved to live in. However, this proposal can link through to the aim to connect people to nature. Emerging research shows that a connection with nature and visiting nature bring independent and additive benefits – and the signs are connection is more important than contact.
The proposal goes on to suggest ‘a new role for our national landscapes in helping the health of our nation. At a local level, they should all establish strong relationships with local public health teams, clinical commissioning groups and social prescribing link workers’. Health and wellbeing depends on everyday behaviours. For those local to national parks this is fine, but nature should be part of everyone’s life, everyday. For example, we’ve developed a green prescription that delivered clinically significant increases in mental health through noticing everyday urban nature.
In sum, the current environmental emergencies show that for a sustainable future we need a new relationship with nature. So, it’s great that the final report highlights the need to connect more people with nature. However, the aim of that connection needs to be defined and the route to it evidence based. Whether it’s humans or nature, one night doesn’t make a relationship. And we also know that learning facts and figures doesn’t make a close relationship with nature. Successful and long-lasting relationships are based on noticing nature and its beauty, emotions, meaningful experiences and care – the pathways to nature connection. For success in reconnecting people with nature through national parks there is a need to move beyond one-off experiences and visits, to evidence based interventions that have delivered improved nature connection. National parks and AONBs can perhaps kick-start and boost these relationships , but the experiences cannot be isolated and the national parks should help build an everyday relationships with nature as part of a wider programme.