Does our connection with nature really matter?

Jayne Manley, CEO

We all know nature is good for us but increasingly our lives are in urban environments. Our communities and daily lives are disconnected from the environment around us. There is startling evidence that we – humans – are the reason why people are not benefitting from nature. But, there are decisions that we can influence to enable society to right these wrongs. We must remove the barriers many people encounter when accessing greenspaces, and help build a society which is rich in nature, where life on Earth thrives and our society is climate just.

Green and blue spaces play a huge role in people’s health and wellbeing. A study by the Exeter University medical team in 2020 found that policies that support new and existing greenspaces could also help with our planet’s sustainability. These policies, and those that enable people to connect with nature nearby, can aid in reducing damaging human behaviours, carbon emissions and help meet biodiversity and climate targets.

The study analysed responses from 24,000 people, looking at their exposure to nature in their locality, recreational visits to natural environments (parks, woodlands, beaches etc.), and the extent to which these people valued the natural world. The research found that green choices are more common in people who live in greener or coastal neighbourhoods and among those who regularly visited natural spaces regardless of where they lived. These relationships were the same for men and women, young and old, and for rich and poor.

So the question is, if humans can equally benefit from greenspaces, and we all need to be active decision makers then why are we not placing a higher priority on fostering connection with nature?

We are not equal…

… in terms of who visits green spaces

80% of the South East population lives in urban areas. In Britain, 2.8 million people do not live within a 10 minute walk of a greenspace in Britain. The Glover Review found that millions of people visit our national landscapes each year. But, subsequent studies (such as this Ramblers report) have shown that, in reality, people don’t have equal access to outdoor spaces. Whilst 57% of British adults questioned said they lived within a five minute walk of green space, that figure fell to 39% for people from an ethnic minority background. And if you don’t have a car or readily disposable income (for public transport, decent footwear, laundry facilities), the chances of you being able to get to and enjoy an outdoor space diminish further.

… in terms of who is working in green spaces

Look around at those volunteering and working in the environment sector. Environment and farming are top of the leader board in being amongst the least diverse profession in the UK.

Moving the dial towards equity

Earth Trust has joined with over 90 organisations, calling for a ‘legal right to nature’ to be integrated with the Government’s levelling up agenda.  The Nature for Everyone Campaign coordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link, amplifies our message for equality and equitable access to nature. Levelling up will not be achieve unless everyone has a legal right to healthy, welcoming local greenspaces.

But, even once we have a legal right to nature in place, and everyone in Britain has a green space within 10-15 minutes of where they live, barriers to engaging with nature  – and making pro-environmental choices as a result – will still exist for many. This is why we must listen to people that are most in need.

Climate justice is not a ‘tick box’. There is currently nothing in policy debate to encourage the co-design of green places with communities and there is limited understanding about what different communities actually need. In spite of what we are led to believe, by our current system, ‘consultation’ is not engagement. It does not lead to support, ownership, access or use.

So why is connection with nature being missed? There are a number of reasons for this: Policy makers do not recognise the social science of change as well as they understand climate or ecosystem science and therefore do not really understand what ‘engagement’ with the environment means. Those communities that are most actively involved in caring for nature or climate are likely to have a deep understanding already; they are already evangelists.

The people who policy makers need to focus on  – and hear most – are those in greatest need. These are likely to be those who are unable or unwilling to visit greenspaces in urban areas or in the countryside. Understanding these needs takes time. Barriers need to be identified, understood and respected.

Society and the ‘environmental space’ needs to change, becoming respectful of different people from different backgrounds and a space where people of all backgrounds are and feel welcomed. The confidence of those that are often overlooked in environmental spaces and planning needs to be built. ‘Co-design’ is key so that plans are not imposed on communities, instead they are actively part of the decision making.  Funding and economic incentives need to enable this. And the response from many is that we need to have the right people sitting around the table to facilitate more listening, more creativity and empowerment.

At Earth Trust we are actively working directly with communities to learn, understand and take action together. This month, two new initiatives are underway and through working with the right partners we are striving for change.

  • Growing Places, sees the beginning of a new relationship with employment charity, Aspire, who works to ensure there is no going back to homelessness and inequality. This pilot project aims to reach people most in need with nowhere else to turn, offering a greater connection to their local landscape, lowering anxiety and widening access to employment.
  • The New to Nature Programme is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and will offer accessible nature-based work for a young person at Earth Trust. As well as inspiring and energising their talent and skills we plan to listen and involve young people more directly in our work.

So, does connection with nature really matter?

Yes. Of course, greater access to nature really matters – and, what matters most is that everyone has equal and equitable access to it.  This should be a key measure of success for policies that central and local government is developing and implementing, be they climate targets, biodiversity or the levelling up agenda.

The key to a positive future lies in people – their actions, their decision making and their creativity.  Given this, it seems unfathomable that ‘people’ are missing from climate and biodiversity policy.