We’ve almost made it through the UK Winter! The days are getting longer and we’re officially on the run-up to Spring and Summer. Here arises the opportunity to connect with nature more than during the colder months – excellent news, considering connecting with nature can have a positive impact on our mental and physical well-being.

However, the opportunity to access nature is not equal across the UK. Let’s delve into the reasons why, and explore some ideas of how to connect with nature that don’t involve travelling miles to a national park.

What do we mean by ‘nature’

It’s important to clarify exactly what we mean when we say ‘nature’. Whilst this includes beaches, green spaces and forests, it’s not isolated to those areas. Nature includes tree-lined streets in a city, and even the clouds or moon in the sky. In this digital age, accessing nature also includes popping on a podcast of rain-sounds or a nature documentary!

Green and blue spaces are frequently used terms when discussing nature, but what does that mean? Green spaces are characterised by outdoor areas that contain ‘green’ elements like grass, trees and vegetation. Blue spaces are areas that specifically feature a waterbody or a watercourse. Find some examples of green and blue spaces below. 

List of green spaces and blue spaces

But how does nature improve our wellbeing?

Here at Curious.Earth we’re always telling you that access to nature can improve mental wellbeing, but how exactly? Research suggests that exposure to nature can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms. Treatments such as Ecotherapy, which involves doing activities outside, has been found to help with moderate to mild depression. Those living in neighbourhoods with more natural spaces generally experience happier, healthier and longer lives than people living in less green environments.

“Time in nature — as long as people feel safe — is an antidote for stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood”.

Yale Environment 360

It’s even been proven that the success rate of patients recovering from surgery is better if they have views of trees rather than concrete walls! So nature really can heal us, pretty cool, eh?

Everybody has a right to nature

As established, accessing nature extends beyond visiting green and blue spaces, but these are the most commonly discussed access points. Unfortunately, this is where the problem arises: while the benefits of nature are abundant, access to green space across the UK is unequal. Consequently, not everyone has the same opportunity to experience these positive benefits. 

The following list summarises some of the intersectional disparities in accessing nature across the UK.

North/South divide: Northern cities have access to fewer parks than cities in the South of England.

Urban areas: Individuals in densely populated urban areas are among the most isolated from nature. The National Trust found that nationally there are 295 deprived neighbourhoods, housing 440,000 people, that are grey deserts – meaning there are no trees or accessible green space.

Isolation: Living in the countryside doesn’t automatically mean a higher access to nature. Rural communities encounter significant accessibility challenges to green spaces of high quality, especially for individuals who depend on walking or public transportation.

Socio-economic status: Communities in lower income areas typically have less access to green space compared to higher income areas. Research identifies that individuals living in deprived urban areas appreciate the value of local green spaces, but these spaces are underused because they are of poor quality and feel unsafe. Shockingly, studies indicate that green spaces in poorer areas of England are at a higher risk of being demolished and developed compared to those in wealthier areas.

Ethnicity: Approximately 40% of individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds live in areas with the least access to green space, compared to 14% of white individuals. The experience of abuse and harassment is also a major barrier preventing individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds accessing green and blue spaces.

Gender and sexuality: Research shows that LGBTQ+ individuals perceive outdoor spaces as less safe than heterosexual and cisgender individuals. Studies also show that women and girls feel unsafe in parks, and are less likely to use parks compared to men and boys.

“For some groups, including many women, younger people, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, nature spaces may feel inaccessible or less enjoyable because they are not safe – from the risk of physical harm, sexual harassment, hate crime or discrimination.”

Mental Health Foundation 

A social justice issue

Access to nature is a social justice issue, with the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities disproportionately affected by limited access to natural spaces. Local authorities, the government and other public bodies have a duty to invest in green infrastructure and advance the equality of opportunity in accessing nature.

Connecting with nature everyday

The systemic inequality of access to nature won’t resolve overnight. In the meantime it’s important that alternative ways to access and connect with nature are shared so that everyone has the opportunity to feel the wellbeing benefits of natural spaces. There are everyday, small acts we can do to connect with nature and attempt to lower our stress levels. In classic Curious.Earth fashion, we can’t just leave it there, so here’s 5 ideas to help you interact with nature:

Bring nature indoors

Gone are the days of having to leave the house to experience nature, now we can do it from our living room sofa, and I don’t just mean bingeing the latest David Attenborough documentary. House plants have been found to decrease stress levels, improve mood and boost our attention span. They are even proven to boost air quality and can improve our sleep! Warning: be prepared that even the best plant parents will suffer losses, they can be stubborn little things…

Soothing sunsets

Whether you live in a bustling city or a rural village, we all share the natural phenomenon of sunrises and sunsets! It’s theorised that just looking at nature can reduce mental fatigue and boost concentration. So, watching the sunset from a window, a park, a coffee-shop or even on your journey home from work is a great opportunity to connect with nature and feel a sense of calm and awe at the natural beauty of the Earth.

Engage all of your senses

Taking even a few minutes of quiet time and engaging your senses can really boost your mood. Whether you’re on your way to meet a friend or popping to the shop, ditch the headphones and look out for any dogs, or feel the leaves on the trees, or look at the shape and movement of the clouds. Engaging our senses in small acts of mindfulness like this can help to boost our connection with nature, which is associated with reduced levels of poor mental health.

Serene sounds of nature

Listening to the sounds of nature has been found to decrease stress and improve mood. And luckily for us, we have streaming services for that! Get cosy on the sofa and give some ocean or rain sounds a listen to hopefully get you feeling relaxed. The same theory applies to watching nature programmes, which increase positive emotions and can even decrease anxiety levels. 

Community action

Here enters multitasking; we can nurture nature and ourselves at the same time! Recycling at home, picking up litter, or walking to work are all great ways of looking after nature while giving ourselves a positivity boost for helping to do our part in looking after the planet. Or consider joining a community group with other like-minded people. The shared experience of volunteering helps to benefit nature and the community (depending what the volunteering activity is), but also provides an opportunity for conversation with others and the satisfaction of achieving results.

Nature isn’t a magic fix

It’s important to emphasise that by no means am I suggesting that watching a sunset or buying a houseplant will resolve any and all struggles we may have. But finding glimpses of nature in our day-to-day activities might just give us a well-needed little serotonin boost here and there.

Be curious!

Featured image by Ignacio Brosa via Unsplash 

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