Democratizing Nature Exposure for Better Health

What factors determine how we engage with nature? Childhood experiences, available time, and environmental settings may all be at play.

a woman with a backpack in the woods

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“It’s all about zip codes.” This is a common refrain in research investigating pathways to health disparities within a geographic area. Yes, access to urban green space is spatially patterned across income levels. But the reality of why, where, and how people seek out nature is far more complex than neighborhood alone.

My team of environmental health researchers at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health conducted a qualitative study to explore how individuals form perceptions toward nature and how they engage with it. We conducted focus group discussions with 127 people — from urban youth to outdoor conservation officers — diverse in age, race, geography, neighborhood and city density, and levels of routine nature contact in 10 locations across the United States. This approach explored individual experience, both positive and negative, as shaping adult nature relationships. Discussion prompts ranged from the difference of being outdoors versus being in nature, persons or organizations who provided introductions to nature, possible barriers to nature engagement, and personal perceptions of safety and risk outdoors.

Our thematic analysis of  the data revealed three factors that shaped nature-seeking behaviors: 1) formative childhood influences; 2) perceptual, material, and structural barriers to engaging with nature; and 3) current environmental settings that heighten a desire to connect with nature.

Engagement with nature was strongly influenced by childhood experiences where participants grew up with people and organizations who introduced them to the outdoors. Time was the obstacle most frequently cited as a barrier to spending time outside. And building enclosures and city design were often noted by participants as both pushing them outdoors or pulling them into nature.

Focusing on accessible and equitable ways people can come to know and care for nature will bring the health benefits of spending time in nature a closer reality for all.

Two distinct models for engaging with the outdoors emerged from our discussions. The first model appears to be set in motion by deep-seated emotional attachments to nature and intentional pursuit of familiar natural environments. It is heavily and positively characterized by childhood place of origin, free outdoor play in childhood, trusted adult mentorship, and a current setting that merges supportive built and natural environments. Here acute and chronic barriers can still detract from lifetime nature engagement. These include urban density, health, and transport but remain surmountable given sufficient time, disposable income, and personal interest.

The second model is, by contrast, shaped by alienation from nature due to job-related urbanization, the changing nature of childhood, societal inequity, generational dynamics, metropolitan growth, urban renewal, and technology. Urban, socioeconomically challenged groups faced the greatest barriers to engaging with nature. These include few formative learning opportunities in nature at a younger age and nature-inclined mentors, layered spatial and social barriers to accessing green space, and urban inefficiencies (urban design and transport). Lack of experience engaging with nature and fears about wilderness dangers also prevented individuals from exploring untouched natural settings.

The changing nature of childhood may predict why many children no longer play independently outdoors as much as distance to greenspace or “what to do” within these spaces. Greater time constraints and safety worries faced by working parents translate into less park use for children living in cities versus suburban communities. Such obstacles offer fewer opportunities for children to interact with nature than enjoyed by previous generations. Many older participants credited direct mentorship of close or extended family members for opening up positive, early-life outdoor experiences. These supervised encounters in nature activated their lifelong nature affinity and instilled comfort and skills outdoors. Such hands-on guidance in nature becomes increasingly remote for children raised today in dense sprawling cities. Democratizing nature use will require attention to cultivating affinity for nature, as well as improving easy access to greenspaces within cities and suburbs.

Early-life impediments to experiencing nature can encourage nature alienation and forfeit the potential in adulthood for reaping the physical, mental health, and emotional benefits of spending time outside.

Our findings, from a broad swath of the United States, can inform integrated public health policy and urban planning decisions to promote meaningful nature access at younger ages. Focusing on accessible and equitable ways people can come to know and care for nature will bring the health benefits of spending time in nature a closer reality for all.

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