Is access to nature a pandemic luxury?
Now more than ever we are recognising the importance of the outdoors. Access to the natural world is an integral part of being human. But we often forget that we are part of nature, not above it.
Pre-COVID, our ability to connect with the sights, sounds and smells of nature helped pull us back into the present, away from those late working hours and high stress urban sprawls which consumed our everyday lives.
However, even before the crisis, not everyone was able to reach these outcrops of oasis – not everyone has access to a countryside, coast or even a garden. A complex mix of socio-economic and geographical factors may play into this, but over the last few months – with the unprecedented shutdowns during the global COVID-19 pandemic – we have all experienced what it is like to be disconnected from the outdoors, like the more disadvantaged in our society experience frequently.
The benefits provided by ‘green escapes’ have become a luxury…a luxury that some people did not have pre-pandemic and could have limited access to in the future.
Green is good
Research has confirmed the significant benefits green spaces can have on mental wellbeing, even dating back to the 1980’s when Kaplan and Kaplan proposed one of the most influential theories to explain the restorative effects of ‘green space’, Attention Restoration Theory. The theory explains how visiting natural environments such as urban green spaces and parks can reduce stress by stimulating involuntary attention, where your attention is diverted away from something without conscious effort and sometimes against your will.
Basically nature is distracting and seems to provide restful experiences, reducing the need for directed attention.
These restful experiences have been further proven scientifically where physiological responses and bio-indicators of stress such as heart rate and cortisol levels have been found to decrease, when induced physiological stress recovery was initiated with sounds of nature in a virtual reality forest. In another study, high perceived ‘naturalness’ generated more recreational activities, higher aesthetic values and wellbeing for residents in vicinity of urban green spaces. This kind of research is not limited to the UK either.
For example research conducted in Japan concluded that visiting a forest can reduce cortisol concentrations, compared to staying in city environment.
An unequal, changing world
During lockdown, we have seen a surge in appreciation for local green spaces and a heightened awareness of their role in boosting our physical and mental health and wellbeing. However there are associated barriers namely urbanisation, fragmentation, and reduction of urban green spaces. Our continuous conversion of land and industrialisation has meant we’ve lost touch with nature.
Those in more deprived areas of cities and urban areas commonly have a lack of green spaces which can restrict access to better human health and wellbeing for communities. In recent studies, populations which are exposed to the greenest environments also have the lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation. In Scotland, participants of men and women not in work aged between 35–55 years, resident in socially disadvantaged districts showed a significant and negative relationship between higher green space levels and stress levels, indicating living in areas with a higher percentage of green space is associated with lower stress.
Physical environments that promote good health could hold the key to reducing socioeconomic health inequalities.
Read more: A Walk In the Park, Doctor’s Orders
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions have been impacted the most, with the highest death tolls. Especially as particular research suggests older residents participate in a greater number of nature-related activities and have higher well-being associated with urban green spaces than younger people. Since this has been taken away with government recommendations to shield completely by staying at home in the past months, they have lost out on their green space therapy.
Promoting green spaces for all – what you can do
Research commissioned by the countryside charity and the HomeOwners Alliance, and polled by YouGov as the lockdown started, showed that 71% of adults in England think their local green space, or nearby countryside, could be enhanced. 52% also said they would like to see more wildlife and a greater variety of plant life (51%) in their local green space.
Now is the perfect time to pressure local councils and governments to make more sustainable changes and improve green spaces in your area. Sign petitions or get involved with organizations like The National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces which is a UK network of area-wide forums. It exists to promote, protect and improve the UK’s parks and green spaces by linking all Friends groups, User Forums and networks throughout the country.
Do you have an elderly, disadvantaged, or struggling relative, neighbour or friend who you could help by for example doing some gardening or buying them an indoor plant? Could you organise a socially distanced walk in your local area with them? As long as it is safe for yourself and them to do so and you aren’t putting anyone at risk.
Sometimes small gestures or a gentle push in the right direction can immensely improve someone’s ability to reach or enjoy a green space. Here are some other ways you can help your community during lockdown.