Why the mundane is magical, and how we can keep it that way

A guest blog by Julian Dobson about our work together on the IWUN project

Governments like ambitious plans. They love to talk in terms of billions of pounds and ‘moonshot’ aspirations. The shiny and spectacular make better headlines than the everyday labour of caring for what we already have. But that everyday work of caring is foundational to our quality of life, as new research on urban green spaces underlines. The research from the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project, published in the journal Cities, highlights the ‘magic of the mundane’: the way ordinary spaces and places, and everyday activities within them, support our mental health and the health of the more-than-human world around us.

Caring is the activity that has been most neglected over the last decade. Money for the ordinary activities of local government, which looks after most of our parks and green spaces in the UK, has been reduced year after year, as the National Audit Office has detailed: between 2010 and 2017/2018, central government funding for English local authorities fell by 49.1 per cent in real terms, and spending power fell by 28.6 per cent. Green spaces, which are not a statutory responsibility, have been first in line for cost-cutting in many localities.

Our Cities article reveals how green spaces sit at the intersection of three types of stress: the mental stress facing people living in our cities, the institutional stresses faced by local government and public services, and the ecological stresses that are taking a growing toll on the natural world as a consequence of human activity.

Through our work in Sheffield, the research team found that there were a wide variety of ways in which connecting with nature supported mental wellbeing, and spaces in which people could grow and nurture those connections.

‘Karen’, a mental health service user who attended a workshop held as part of the project, described the scrubland seen on her daily journey as ‘always different. It ebbs and flows like the sea’. The head of therapy at a health trust spoke of her joy at seeing spring flowers or noticing frosty landscapes.

Finding magic in the mundane

Such experiences are best not handed to people by prescribing a ‘dose of nature’ as if it were a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. Better that they are made possible each day through quite ordinary, but undervalued, practices of looking after our wildlife and green spaces, making sure they are safe and inclusive, creating walker-friendly and interesting routes, and providing facilities such as toilets that make places accessible to those who would otherwise be excluded.

There is value too in social prescribing, the practice of addressing health problems or aiding recovery through activities in the community rather than medical interventions. A health walk or an arts workshop, or just being able to sit in a green space safely and without anxiety, can effectively complement medical help and enable people to find ways of dealing with their own health conditions. But it is not a cheap substitute for traditional healthcare or an off-the-peg solution: our work emphasises the importance of understanding people’s own connections with nature and sense of self.

What we do know is that connections with nature are psychologically important and should be encouraged. Our work using a smartphone app showed that noticing good things in urban nature over seven days resulted in improvements in mental wellbeing that lasted two months. These ‘good things’ were everyday experiences – the view of a tree or sky, a flower in a wall or a squirrel in a park.

Noticing the good things in urban nature

But these everyday interactions are underpinned by unseen work, and are vulnerable if that work is neglected. If you design urban spaces with a high density of high-rise blocks to maximise profit on available land, you squeeze out the natural world and people’s opportunity to engage with it. If you have to cross a busy arterial road to visit your local park, you might be less inclined to bother.

If you fail to care for woodlands or canal towpaths and they become littered with glass and fly-tipped rubbish, people will stop using them. If you starve community organisations of funding so that they cannot organise local events and celebrations in parks, people will be more likely to stay in their homes. Nature then becomes less meaningful in people’s lives.

This story of neglect and simply not noticing what it takes for a town or city to offer a good quality of life is repeated time and again, and typifies current planning and practice in the UK. This is why our research, much of what emphasises what might appear obvious, matters.

It is also why a transdisciplinary approach is important. The world can’t be reduced to the findings of one empirical method, and neither can policy: how we plan and care for our towns and cities relates as much to people’s perceptions and experiences as it does to their physical health or economic prosperity.

So we need an approach that appreciates multiplicity and complexity, which is why we turned to affordance theory and the notion of ‘redundant causality’ in our work. Affordance theory highlights the many possibilities that a space or an object can offer – a tree can be a climbing frame, a memorial, a space of solace, a wildlife habitat, a provider of food and a carbon sink, among many other roles. More on affordances in nature here and here.

The idea of redundant causality is that there can, and should, be many ways to reach a destination. If the policy objective is better mental health, then natural spaces should provide multiple ways of enhancing wellbeing. But not everyone will want to be outside – for some the outdoors is a place of fear. So the ‘best’ way of supporting wellbeing will be different for each person.

So we highlight four messages for policymakers, which can support the multiplicity of experiences of urban nature that enable city dwellers to have a rich quality of life.

Encounter nature in everyday journeys

First, we need sustained investment in the everyday physical and social infrastructure of urban natural spaces. This investment should create spaces of interest and surprise, promote social interaction and include funding and support for ongoing maintenance, care and renewal and increased biodiversity.

Second, we need to see green infrastructure as social infrastructure as well as an ecological network. Travellers should encounter nature in everyday journeys. High quality natural spaces should be provided equitably to ensure minorities and people with disabilities or health problems can access them. Policymakers should support the organisations and intermediaries (such as civil society organisations) that bring natural spaces to life. This will prompt a variety of experiences and relationships outlined in our pathways to nature connectedness.

Our third recommendation is that, in addition to engaging with nature to maintain wellbeing, healthcare providers should make use of green and natural spaces to support recovery from mental and physical illness and to manage continuing health conditions.

Fourth, policymakers should recognise that the health benefits of green spaces are dependent on a diverse and active network of community-based organisations and groups that link people, places and wellbeing. Such groups need to be included in decision-making and supported by national and local policies and funding.

These recommendations aren’t difficult or expensive to implement, compared with many of the initiatives governments have funded. But they do demand a change in mindset, letting go of the obsession with the new and shiny and valuing the magic of the everyday.

 

Dobson, J., Birch, J., Brindley, P., Henneberry, J., McEwan, K., Mears, M., Richardson, M. & Jorgensen, A. (2020). The magic of the mundane: The vulnerable web of connections between urban nature and wellbeing. Cities, 108, 102989.

 

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What best explains children’s connection with nature?

There is growing interest in reconnecting children with nature. With the relationship between children and nature being the focus of much commentary and research. Many organizations direct a great deal of resource into programs and policies to reconnect children with nature. To be most effective, these efforts should be informed from an understanding of the factors that explain higher levels of children’s nature connectedness – that close relationship with nature which is associated with well-being of both people and nature.  Our paper exploring various factors that explain children’s nature connectedness has been published recently. This blog provides a summary.

Connecting with the simple things in nature

The growth of research into nature connectedness has largely been with adults, but recent research highlights the importance of nature connectedness for children’s well-being. A study of  close to 30,000 Canadian children found that those who felt a connection to nature was important had 25% fewer mental ill-health symptoms (Piccininni et al., 2018). Other research has determined that nature connectedness is a key predictor of pro-nature behaviours in children. Another area of research has revealed a teenage dip in children’s nature connectedness with levels dropping by up to 30% from age 9 to 15. Research in this area has also found that current levels of connection to nature are not at levels needed for a sustainable future.

Although there is research into childhood experiences in nature (e.g. Soga et al., 2018), there is less understanding of the factors involved in children’s nature connectedness. So using data from the nationally-representative Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey of households in England we investigated the associations between children’s nature connectedness and several factors:

  • Children’s nature visits; child age and gender;
  • Adult (from the same household) nature connectedness, nature visits, nature program watching, and demographics;
  • Neighbourhood greenspace, urbanicity, and deprivation.

The MENE data is collected face-to-face across England, and throughout the year, in order to reduce geographical and seasonal biases. Participants were drawn from eight waves of the MENE survey. Adult and child nature connectedness was measured using the Nature Connection Index.

Headline Results

First we looked at child characteristics. Results of a linear regression model showed that child gender and age emerged as the only significant predictors of child nature connectedness. Girls had a more positive association with nature connectedness, whereas older children had lower levels of nature connectedness – as expected from previous research. Surprisingly, nature visits were not related to nature connectedness – more thoughts on that later.

Looking at the links between children’s nature connectedness and parent/guardian characteristics, adult nature connectedness emerged as the only significant predictor of child’s nature connectedness. None of the other adult characteristics assessed (gender, age, marital status, frequency of nature visits, watching/listening to nature programs) significantly predicted child nature connectedness. Our analysis also showed that the socio-economic status of the household was not related to a child’s nature connection.

Finally, the analysis looked at the relationship between area-level characteristics and children’s nature connectedness. Contrary to expectations, higher levels of neighbourhood greenspace were related to lower levels of nature connectedness. In contrast, neighbourhood deprivation was positively associated with children nature connectedness. Urbanicity was not significantly related to children’s nature connectedness – although there was a relatively small number of rural residents in our sample. Some unexpected results here, so let’s consider them further.

Frequency of visiting nature was not related to children’s connection to nature. This might seem surprising, considering the relationship between nature contact and nature connectedness observed elsewhere. However, time in nature is often linked to short-term increases in nature connectedness. Even then, other research has found that simple contact with greenspaces such as a vegetated courtyard or parks does not always lead to short-term improvements in nature connectedness. From a pathways to nature connection perspective this is likely due to passive contact with nature rather than active engagement.

In the survey, nature visits include open spaces in and around towns and cities, the coast and the countryside. We can ask how many of the children’s nature visits were to fenced-off play grounds in the local park? Or the play area near the car park? Do more nature connected parents visit different types of green spaces and do different things when they are there? Given parents connection was the biggest predictor of children’s connection, it seems likely that they do.  And we know nature connectedness is improved with the right type of activities, such as noticing nature or 30 Days Wild. How many local parks facilitate those experiences?

A nature connection experience?

There was an unexpected finding that neighbourhood deprivation was positively associated with children’s nature connectedness. This is counter-intuitive as children from higher-income households spend more time visiting nature – but then we found no relation between nature visits and nature connectedness. However, other research has found children in more deprived neighbourhoods spend more time outdoors with friends, maybe engaging with nature while making dens or collecting the natural objects they find. Further, research shows that children from households in more deprived areas tend to spend less time using smartphones, which is predictive of greater nature connectedness.

Teenage nature connection matters

Similarly, there was an unexpected negative relationship between neighbourhood greenspace and nature connectedness. Again, we also found no relation between nature visits and nature connectedness. However it should be noted that the measures of neighbourhood deprivation and greenspace are related – greenspace is generally of reduced quality in areas of greater deprivation. Also, whilst providing unique insights into the factors associated with child nature connectedness, our results, like all similar studies, should be considered within the context of their limitations. First, the cross-sectional approach limits the ability to make causal inferences. Second, the majority of the data is based upon retrospective self-reports. Third, as mentioned above, we know little about the quality of contact with nature during the visits.

Conclusions

Perhaps most important is that having an adult with high nature connectedness in the same household was the strongest predictor of children’s nature connectedness. So, it’s likely that the most effective policies and programs will be ones that also involve parents and guardians. Of similar significance was age – we must continue to foster a connection with nature into adolescence rather than focus programs on younger children.

Our analysis also challenges some assumptions. It shows that policy and programs geared to reconnecting children with nature should go beyond a focus on visits and access. The purpose and reality of that access and those visits needs to be considered. Nature visits and local greenspace don’t necessarily bring a closer connection with nature – what matters is what children experience during those visits. It should be remembered that connection can be built away from visits to nature, at home, in school and noticing nature in the neighbourhood. Further, children from less deprived neighbourhoods with good access to nature still need to be considered when attempting to improve connection.

In sum, as shown in our other MENE work, nature access and nature connection are different, but both are needed for health and mental wellbeing – of people and planet. Clearly, the better our understanding of what fosters nature connectedness in children, the more effective our programs can be.

 

Passmore, H. A., Martin, L., Richardson, M., White, M., Hunt, A., & Pahl, S. (2020). Parental/Guardians’ Connection to Nature Better Predicts Children’s Nature Connectedness than Visits or Area-Level Characteristics. Ecopsychology.

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Deviant personalities and their relationship with nature

A guest blog by Dr Dean Fido & Dr Alice Rees.

The affinity that humans share with nature is well-documented, as are the benefits of living a life interwoven and connected with nature. Such benefits include facets that are key to living a worthwhile live and the protection against poor mental wellbeing. Our research group has also found nature connectedness plays a part in pro-social and empathic behaviour (Fido & Richardson, 2019; Passmore & Holder, 2017). In the West, this presents a strong disparity with the Hobbesian viewpoint that selfish and aggressive behavioural trends are somewhat normaland adaptivein the modern world. To date, however, this remains a highly under-researched avenue of investigation.

In psychology, dark personalitiesare commonly characterised by conceptually distinct yet overlapping personality traits present throughout the general population. They include personalities which thrive on a callous disregard for others, cynicism, self-centeredness, and manipulation. These traits are commonly labelled psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism and even though research into nature connectedness has grown exponentially over the last decade, we are the first to explore the role of dark personality in the experience of nature. The results of that research have just been published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Free access until 20/11/20; Fido et al., 2020; also pre-print: https://psyarxiv.com/shd7v).

Our latest research looks at two UK based adult samples and the links between psychopathy and nature connectedness. We see that psychopathy (i.e., deficits in empathy and the emotional connection to others) predicts low levels of nature connectedness. This mirrors our earlier findings that low levels of nature connectedness are associated with greater callous and unemotional traits (an index of psychopathy) (Fido & Richardson, 2019; https://psyarxiv.com/dtc42/). We found this pattern with Machiavellianism (cynicism and manipulation) and sadism (enjoyment of inflicting and watching pain in others) which suggests a general lack of empathy in those low in nature connectedness. These relationships persisted even when considering the participant’s disposition (or lack thereof) to be connected with wider aspects of society. This further supports nature connectedness as a unique concept that is not to be conflated with a greater need for connection with society.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Alongside this, we looked at participant’s preference for living in inner-city areas (typically limited in green spaces) and their history of living in densely populated vs rural areas. The motivation behind this suggests that individuals characterised by dark personalities benefit from residing among others with whom they can easily manipulate and take of advantage of, with the ultimate goal of succeeding in life and establishing themselves in positions of power. We found that those who scored higher in psychopathy showed a preference for residing in inner-city, relative to rural and suburban areas  – although, this did not map onto participants’ residential history. While those who scored higher in psychopathy expressed a preference for inner-city living, they did not report living in more densely populated areas.

Nevertheless, we show nature connectedness appears to be heavily implicated by personality variables which are underpinned by empathic responses to others. Moreover, as such personality traits also predict engagement in deviant and often illegal activities, there presents opportunity to further explore the role of interventions aimed at increasing our levels of nature connectedness in populations at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

 

Fido, D., Rees, A., Clarke, P., Petronzi, D., & Richardson, M. (2020). Examining the connection between nature connectedness and dark personality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 72, 101499.

Fido, D., & Richardson, M. (2019). Empathy Mediates the Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Both Callous and Uncaring Traits.Ecopsychology, 11(2).

Passmore, H. A., & Holder, M. D. (2017). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 537-546.

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The Nature of Meaningful Maps

Maps provide a representation the landscape – often the natural landscape. So they play a part in the human-nature relationship. Maps are also relevant to my previous human factors research into external representations and mental models. Maps are part of our thinking and actions, how easily we get from A to B – but they can also encourage people to walk. And encourage people to pause and notice nature. Maps can bring joy and connection!

The OS maps we often use are detailed and accurate representations of the features of the landscape, using symbols where necessary. They’re wonderful pieces of work, but getting the most out of them requires map-reading skills in order to construct a spatial representation or image in the mind. The map, the mind and the landscape become coupled as we try to find our way. This quote from cognitive psychologist and expert on visuo-spatial thinking, Barbara Tversky opens up the possibilities of maps:

“Maps schematize the real world in that they are two-dimensional, they omit information, they regularize, they use inconsistent scale and perspective, and they exaggerate, fantasize, and carry messages” – Barbara Tversky.

We can choose which information to include and even exaggerate features to create a meaningful journey – a journey that taps into the pathways to nature connectedness for example. More on that later, first lets dig a little deeper into the cognition and ‘schematisation’.

How we Think with Maps

Effective maps schematise information in ways similar to the ways our minds schematise information. Schematisation involves excluding information, simplifying and even distorting information – maps and memory are not a perfect mirror of reality. Aerial views of the landscape are common and easy to access, but we don’t use them as maps even though they’re realistic. They are cluttered, contain unnecessary detail and can hide useful detail. Although, like maps aerial photos show an overview where as we see a frontal view when on the ground. Good schematisation eases interpretation, reduces memory load and facilitates information processing. However, it can introduce bias and error.

Maps distribute thinking. Such that it involves neither wholly internal, nor entirely external, representations – instead they involve an interaction between both representational domains – the mind and the map. To comprehend a map we decompose the map into basic elements. Maps encourage the formation of ‘spatial mental models’, based on prior knowledge, presented information and reasoning skills. Poor spatial information and highly schematised, unrealistic maps can interfere with this mental process. However, rather than a mental map a better metaphor for people’s mental representations of the landscape is a mental collage.

This comprehension of maps makes use of the ‘visuospatial sketchpad’ component of our memory which has limited capacity. Visualization loads our working memory and cognition a lot, especially when the mismatch between the internal and external representation grows. Maps that reduce possible interpretations of a situation are more efficient. Wayfinding is a complex cognitive exercise!

Good maps should make mentally imagining and evaluating actions easier. To do this good maps assist search, facilitate recognition and inference – three key components of information processing. They should activate ‘perceptual operations’ – the perceptual work should be automatic and easy. For example, spatial relationships do not have to be described; they are immediately apparent. Maps are more difficult to use when skills are needed to extract the information from them. Through being closely coupled with the mind, and the reality of the landscape, maps can reduce the amount of cognitive effort required to find our way.

Maps and Nature Connection

This dry cognitive perspective seems at odds with Tversky’s quote on inconsistent scale and perspective, exaggeration and fantasy – but neither maps or memory are perfect reflections of the world. Using those imperfections is where the skill and creativity of the mapmaker come in.

One of the first things I did when I was renewing my relationship with the rest of the natural world was draw a map to understand the local landscape. To strip away the detail to reveal the bones of the landscape and places and features that had meaning fore me. Using the accuracy of OS maps as a guide I exaggerated the hills to match how they felt on the ground – steep! Rather than a vertical overview, I created a viewpoint that looked towards my home from high above the valley below. The map revealed a modest plateau between two rivers. When I think of my local landscape, I think in terms of my map and the simple context it provides.

Understanding the local landscape with a hand drawn map

Maps and location have been a key part of some of our nature connectedness research. By recording where people were when enjoying the good things in nature we were able to find a strong relationship between levels of biodiversity in the landscape and emotional response to that place. People reported being happier in sites with greater variety of wildlife and with a greater variety of habitats. We mapped emotions and perceptions of biodiversity.

Mapping Positive Emotions

So how might maps play a role in increasing nature connectedness? They can be designed with the pathways to nature connectedness in mind. Maps can help:

  • Activate the senses: Encourage users to notice and actively engage with nature – highlight places to pause.
  • Elicit emotions: Encourage users to engage emotionally with nature – map the joy and wonder of the landscape.
  • Highlight nature’s beauty: Map and point people towards beauty in the natural world.
  • Provide and help discover meaning: Let nature bring meaning to life –nthrough natural waypoints. Celebrate nature – map songs, stories, poems and art.
  • Facilitate care and compassion: provide opportunities to take actions that are good for nature – and actions that do not disturb nature.

And maps can also reveal new things about familiar landscapes. A journey of discovery is not just to wild landscapes, but finding wilderness, wonder and meaning in simple places close to home. Maps can be a part of that journey. Maps can help find our way closer to nature, not just travel through it.

 

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Tune Into Nature Music Prize Winner

It’s a delight to announce the winner of the Tune Into Nature Music Prize, it’s been wonderful to see the idea become reality with the support of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Selfridges, Tileyard London. The winning track is I Eden by LYDIAH, who says:

“Becoming the winner of the Tune Into Nature Music Prize has been such a blessing, I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity. It’s definitely going to help me progress as an artist. Having Selfridges play my track in store and to be associated with such an incredible movement for Project Earth is something that I am very proud of and excited for. I’m able to use the funding to support my debut E.P which couldn’t have come at a better time! The Prize is such a great project and the message is so so important. I can’t thank Miles, Martyn and everyone who supports it enough.”

Twenty-one year old LYDIAH, based in Liverpool, has been selected as the winner of the Tune Into Nature Music Prize for her entry I Eden. The composition is written from the point of view of Mother Nature and highlights the dangers of humans becoming increasingly distanced from the natural world. LYDIAH will receive a £1,000 grant to support her work, the opportunity to perform at Timber Festival in 2021 and a remix with Tileyard London produced by Principal Martyn Ware (Heaven 17), who says:

I thoroughly enjoyed helping to judge some exceptional entries for this unique competition. Our winner is a very talented young artist who I’m looking forward to meeting and working with to create an exciting remix. As an artist and an activist myself, I hope this will encourage more young people to creatively respond to the issues we face today. We all want the success of this year’s competition to encourage even more entries next year.

The Prize is the brainchild of Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby. The research team at the University of Derby has found that the connection between young people and nature dips during teenage years and takes more than a decade to recover. Research also shows that references to nature in contemporary music have decreased consistently since the 1950s. This matters as a close connection with nature helps both the wellbeing of people and our planet, as people who are tuned into nature are more likely to care for it, as Miles says:

“LYDIAH’s lyrics stood out as they tell the story of the importance of the simple things in nature, the birds and the trees – and their beauty. Our research this year shows that tuning into these simple things really matters for nature’s wellbeing and our own wellbeing – yet people tend not to notice them. Through singing of Mother Nature’s loss LYDIAH helps highlight their importance”.

I Eden will be broadcast through Selfridges’ flagship store on 3 and 10 October as part of the organisation’s Project Earth initiative which pledges its long-term commitment to creating a more sustainable future for people and the planet.

The Prize was selected by a team comprising Prof. Miles Richardson of the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby; Dr Simon Lesley, Course Director of BA (Hons) Popular Music at Birmingham City University; musician Sam Lee, music critic Kristan J Caryl, Selfridges, Tileyard London, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park to highlight the need for a new relationship with nature and provide vital support for young creative practitioners. It was facilitated by Yorkshire Sculpture Park as part of its mission to be an agent of positive change, bringing people together who wouldn’t otherwise meet to realise shared ambitions.

The judges were impressed by many of the 180 entries and highly recommend a number, which ranged from folk (Iona Lane, Alyshah Monroe); instrumental (Faraaz Hussain), folk/jazz (Sullie Burgess) as well as tracks inspired by the lockdown (Sarah Carton, Niamh Gibbs, Max Greaves) or contemporary tracks inspired by simple pleasures in nature (Caslean, Omar Gutierrez, Tyler Worthington, Shivelights) and express their gratitude to everyone who took part.

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