Connecting with nature in the city is more than visiting ‘green space’

Nature in the city is frequently conceptualised as urban ‘green space’. Using only this term, we are in danger of losing sight of the multiple ways in which different people connect with nature for their wellbeing. The connections we make with nature offer opportunity to feel deep relaxation, awe and vitality as well as joy and excitement.

Concerns about how modern lives reduce our time spent in connection with nature have prompted large scale surveys to be carried out, helping us understand the British population’s nature ‘use’ — in terms of how near people are to green space and how often they visit green space in countryside and in cities. That research suggests that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (sometimes referred to as BAME or BME) groups are ‘lower users’ of nature, and so are older people and those living within socio-economically deprived areas.

Our study, based in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape, is unpicking these findings about urban ‘green space’ and nature use. We think nature connection can be understood as more than access to green space and we want to know if those who might be considered ‘low users’ are in fact connecting to nature in different ways.

Our project, Improving Wellbeing Through Urban Nature (IWUN), led by Dr Anna Jorgensen crosses disciplines and uses a variety of methods to understand the nature and mental wellbeing relationship. One of the study’s four teams is using story-based interviews and arts workshops with Sheffield residents from diverse backgrounds (especially differentiated by age, gender, culture and ethnicity, residential location and self-reported health) to explore this relationship.

Interviews have enabled participants to narrate, in their own ways, their connections with nature through the life course and their experiences of nature affecting their personal wellbeing. Additionally our arts workshops with people who have mental health difficulties are helping us understand more about the ways in which nature can be helpful in times of mental health difficulty, illness or recovery, not just in times of being mentally ‘well’.

Who connects with urban nature?

Importantly, we are finding that people who live in cities are clearly finding nature which helps their sense of mental wellbeing. People making these positive nature connections are from different socioeconomic areas of the city, from different ethnic and cultural groups and are of different ages.

Connection with nature is valuable, sometimes life-saving, for people with mild to severe mental health difficulties, though periods of serious mental illness temporarily disrupt abilities to notice nature. Migrants and those who have ties with other cultures have strong nature connections, drawing on memories of nature from their childhoods and birthplaces which positively support their current experiences of nature. These memories are of landscapes, outdoor activities, contact with animals, gardening, farming and social bonds taking place in outdoor natural environments.

In our participant’s life stories those making nature connections, such as actively seeking a calming walk in woodlands or purposely choosing to sit near the soothing sound of a fountain, are those who have spent time outdoors and in nature as children. People who tell fewer stories of nature connection are those who live in more deprived urban areas and those who had little outdoor time when younger.

This finding has considerable policy implications for careful allocation of a city’s healthcare and urban planning resources as well as for how children and families can be supported to access nature.

Where is nature in the city?

Whilst Sheffield’s woodlands, its mature trees, parks and escape routes contribute to good mental health, ‘blue space’ matters too. Water in all its forms: fountains, brooks, canals and rivers, offer calm and relaxation. Multi-coloured spaces created by flowers on verges, in private gardens and in parks make a notable contribution to wellbeing.

Rarely considered as nature, when defined in terms of green space, are animals in city farms and pets at home. These, alongside sightings of urban wildlife, are valued connections with the natural world, providing companionship and wonder in the non-human aspects of urban landscape.

Planning for nature connection, not just green space in the city

The IWUN project is finding that ‘green space’ within and around a city is vital, yet broadening our thinking and planning to include the wider concept of other everyday connections with nature in the city has two positive outcomes.

Firstly, we reach a more inclusive understanding of how nature can assist flourishing mental health for increasingly diverse and aging urban populations. Secondly, urban nature no longer becomes a matter of ‘green space’ thinking being siloed into the remit of planners and parks departments. As the World Health Organisation and Future of Public Parks Inquiry report suggest, establishing solid collaborations and relationships between those who work in urban planning and those in health sectors is an important next step.

As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science an interactive IWUN exhibition ‘Feeling Good in a Green City’ is free to attend, in Sheffield’s Winter Gardens Friday 10th and Saturday 11th November.

Join us at a custom-built listening station to hear Sheffield residents share their experiences and find out what kind of urban nature helps wellbeing. No booking needed.

Dr Jo Birch is Research Associate in the Department of Landscape and is working in an IWUN team with Dr Clare Rishbeth, Professor Brendan Stone, University of Sheffield and Dr Sarah Payne at Heriot-Watt University.

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