A new relationship with nature: why it matters and what we can do

The challenge – a failing relationship with nature.

There’s no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Everyone is at risk from the loss of habitats and a warming planet. The climate crisis and wildlife emergency show that the existing relationship between people and the rest of nature is failing. Too often we see nature as something to use, control or as a threat to us. To fix this we need a new relationship with nature and doing so can also help tackle the crisis in our mental health and wellbeing.

The Government’s 25-year Environment Plan (25YEP) aims to improve the natural environment within a generation and to reconnect people with nature. To achieve that, people everywhere need to feel that nature matters to them. Since publication of the 25YEP ground-breaking evidence has emerged that challenges traditional thinking and provides a greater understanding of what a connection with nature means and how to achieve it.

The ambition – a new relationship with nature.

The ambition is happier and more fulfilled people and a thriving environment created by forging a new relationship with nature. To build that new relationship, and hence the wellbeing of people and the rest of the natural world, we need to reboot our policies and practices so that they enable people to connect with nature. We must go beyond access and visits to nature. Beyond engaging people with nature through facts and figures. The research evidence tells us we can build a new relationship by noticing nature and celebrating the role of nature in healthy, sustainable and meaningful lives.

The evidence – why our relationship with nature matters.

Recent evidence from the scientific study of ‘nature connectedness’ shows that we need to go beyond simply enabling people’s access to nature, and enable people to build a meaningful connection with nature.

Here are some highlights of the research:

People’s nature connectedness, rather than their time in, or visits to nature, predicts mental welling – nearly 4 times larger than the increase associated with higher socio-economic status; Nature connectedness and noticing nature predicts both pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours, while the frequency of nature visits does not; A close relationship with nature and its benefits do not come from the traditional approach of learning facts and figures; People with common mental health problems who simply notice good things about urban nature show clinically significant improvements in their quality of life.

Solutions – improving our relationship with nature.

Nature connectedness offers simple solutions to help deal with complex societal problems. People will be more supportive of the big changes needed if they feel that nature matters to them. A nature connected population will also be more likely to take action for nature. Through a new, more connected relationship with nature people can live a happier, more worthwhile and sustainable life.

Public policy goes beyond funding and regulation to the creation of symbolic capital, showing what is valued or not valued within the public arena. Policy can contribute to the deeper paradigm shift required for a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world. Below we outline a series of policies that could inform and reinforce such a paradigm shift.

Education policy should consider how education can build the foundations of a new relationship with nature for a sustainable future. A ‘green thread’ of human-nature relationships can run through the curriculum to provide the context and vision for a new relationship with nature. The priorities of the UK Department for Education should move beyond standards, character and resilience to goals that reference the importance of the human-nature relationship for a sustainable future.

Transport policy should be geared to green commuting, not just in terms of carbon footprint, but emphasising the importance of views of natural spaces, using meaningful natural waypoints and creating natural habitats and gardens at transport hubs. ‘Slow commuting’ should be developed, providing places to pause and take a moment with nature. Transport policy should celebrate the beauty of the natural world visible from trains and roads to maximise enjoyment of the natural world.

Urban planning and design should move beyond access to ‘access for connection’. Turning the public realm, streetscapes and public spaces, into places where people can engage with and care for nature in the course of their everyday activities. Urban design should create spaces to offer the prompts and opportunities to pause and notice nature, creating ‘habitats for connection’ – providing an abundance and variety of wildlife to notice through bringing nature recovery networks into urban areas.

Housing policy should stipulate that all new developments should include spaces for an active relationship with nature. Landscape design should prompt sensory engagement with nature, resident management of wildlife-friendly gardens, and new wildlife habitats to surround people with the good things in nature. Government should work with housing and planning professions to incorporate principles of nature connectedness into design standards.

Arts policy should recognise the close links between art, cultural expression and nature connectedness. It should support a wide diversity of artistic expression, celebrate nature and our relationship with it and support installations to prompt engagement with nature. It should especially support minority and marginalised groups in expressing their own appreciation and connections with nature.

Health policy should be based on models of ‘One Health’ that revises the concept of wellbeing through an interdisciplinary approach that stresses the connections between human, animal and environmental health. Healthcare premises should be designed and managed to bring nature into the lives of users and staff. Social prescribing and social care standards should stipulate engagement with natural environments as a core element of person-centred care. National health indices and wellbeing assessments should include levels of nature connectedness. The 5 Ways to Wellbeing guidance should be revised to include nature.

In sum, a new relationship with nature is an essential target to foster a worthwhile and sustainable life. These evidence-based policies are often simple and low cost while helping address the challenges of a warming climate, wildlife loss and mental health in a post-pandemic world.




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