Our health depends on nature but this year showed that access to green spaces isn’t equal

This post is by Dr Rose O’Neill, principal specialist for people and environment at Natural England.

For all its ups and considerable downs, 2020 was a year when the nation sought solace in nature.

Since April, Natural England has been asking people in England about their relationship with nature. Each week we ask hundreds of adults from all walks of life about how they have spent time in green and natural places, how this has affected their health, and their environmental attitudes and behaviours.

Recent trends show a mixed picture
These official People and Nature Survey for England statistics show time in green and natural spaces has been consistently high, with two thirds (62 per cent) of adults in England regularly spending time in nature in October 2020. But it is a story in two parts: while the majority of those surveyed report getting out more since before the pandemic, there remain many for whom the pandemic experience has not been so positive. In October 2020, a quarter (25 per cent) of adults reported not spending any time in green and natural spaces in the previous fortnight and 13 per cent had not done so in the previous month.

Detailed demographic analysis of the People and Nature Survey shows that you are less likely to have visited a natural space if you are living in an area of high deprivation or have a low income. For example, 44 per cent of respondents in households earning £15,000 or less visited a natural space in the last 14 days, compared to 70 per cent of those earning £50,000 or above. Older people, people from minority ethnic groups, those with a long term illness or condition, are also less likely to have visited a natural space. Our Children in Nature Survey tells a similar two part story.

Work is needed to make accessing the outdoors more inclusive
We asked adults and children why they couldn’t spend time in nature. Fear of catching coronavirus, worries about complying with regulations and closures of parks and facilities were the main reasons reported. Other barriers included time, weather and quality of local spaces. This is a complex picture and we are working with universities to explore these barriers to make the outdoors more inclusive. This is our top focus for next year. Everyone is welcome to join our Research Group to collaborate and tackle this.

For all these differences, there were some more universal findings. In October 2020, 88 per cent of adults agreed that green and natural spaces were good for their mental health and wellbeing and 82 per cent reported that “being in nature makes me very happy”.  

Environmental attitudes are also more universal: nine in ten adults said that protecting the environment was important to them personally. Three in four adults are aware of biodiversity loss and concerned about the loss in England specifically.

The People and Nature Survey has shown that there has been a surge in pro-environmental behaviours. In October 2020, 57 per cent reported driving less, 36 per cent reported throwing less food away and 17 per cent reported eating less meat. That up-swell extends to nature behaviours too, from wildlife gardening to nature watching.

A challenge for the environment movement
The challenge for the environmental movement is to respond to this wave, harness the strength of public awakening and, most importantly, respond so that our offer as a sector is relevant and provides real opportunity to help the public over the attitude-behaviour gap and translate support into tangible action.

Crucially, we need to recognise that, while there is strong environmental feeling, people may not think about nature in the same way that we do.

Our survey has shown consistently that the main way people experience nature is from their homes and gardens, and in urban parks and green spaces. With the majority of the population living in urban areas, the sector must work harder to bring nature to people, rewilding towns and cities and helping people to travel easily from town to countryside.

The significant reductions in mental and physical health related to coronavirus, coupled with strong evidence about the restorative role nature can play, suggests that this should be more of a focus for the green sector. This is why the People and Nature Survey is capturing health outcomes. Natural England’s wider Connecting People with Nature Programme is also targeting improving the urban environment through our Green Infrastructure Standards project and increasing access to green social prescribing.

Looking ahead to the major environmental decisions coming up in 2021, it’s never been clearer that our health depends on nature, and the health of the whole natural world depends on us all.

The People and Nature Survey releases updates every month.

You can follow Dr Rose O’Neill on twitter on @NEChiefSci and @RoseONei11

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