Generation indoors has a real problem; it’s disconnect with nature. Children today spend half as much time playing outdoors as their parents did and more than 70% report that they rarely engage with nature, for example through watching clouds, butterflies or bees. This phenomenon is not just exclusive to young people, however. The same study found that, in the past year, most adults had never or rarely smelled wild flowers or listened to birdsong.
Although we witnessed a renewed interest in nature during lockdown, there was also a surge in littering and wildlife-damaging behaviour. Campaigners are concerned that once we return to a more normal way of life, the connections that were made could be lost. Furthermore, with the message to “stay at home” enduring for many months, the so-called ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ may have been exacerbated during the pandemic, especially for vulnerable individuals told to shield and children living in urbanised environments as schools and parks closed.
Access to greenspace has become somewhat of a privilege. Whilst the area and quality of nature is declining, there are simultaneously a number of socio-cultural factors which create barriers to accessing what remains. These include physical (either through distance or disability), psychological (such as concerns for safety which particularly affect women, young people and ethnic minority groups) and financial (through a lack of funds for travel or entrance fees or due to time constraints). You may be wondering what the significance of this unequal access is. To answer this, we must look at what we can gain by spending time in nature.
Firstly, are the obvious physical and health benefits. Studies have shown that connecting with nature, can reduce blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and promote faster healing. Nature can also benefit our mental health by reducing anxiety, improving mood and increasing self-esteem. Some research even suggests that the presence of trees in urban neighbourhoods can reduce incidences of violence. I am not advocating that trees will end violence, but these studies highlight just how calming nature is and how central it is to our wellbeing.
Besides the health benefits, connecting to nature can help us to feel empowered to protect it. The State of Nature report reveals that 60% of UK species have experienced decline in recent decades and one study found that individuals who regularly spend time in nature were more likely to take action to tackle this wildlife crisis. Thus, by improving access to greenspace and people’s connection with nature, we can improve health, help address mental health issues and ensure nature remains available for future generations to enjoy, all of which will be vital for a sustainable COVID-19 recovery. For many, lockdown has been an important reminder on how much we need nature and I hope this continues.