In her new book examining the link between nature and wellbeing, environmental historian Dr Catherine Knight explores the benefits of nature experienced by everyday New Zealanders, and argues for more nature in the places where most New Zealanders live – our towns and cities.
In New Zealand, we think of ourselves as a country rich with nature, but the fact is that most of our surviving forest and pristine waterways are concentrated in the most mountainous parts of the country. They’re preserved not as a result of careful stewardship, but rather an accident of history: it was just too hard to develop and economically exploit these rugged, inaccessible places. Our lowland landscapes are largely bereft of any forests, wetlands or any nature in its original form.
This means that to experience nature in its pure, indigenous sense, most of us have to travel some distance; it is not something we can step out of our back door and do. But many New Zealanders do not have the luxury of taking long holidays to walk or camp in one of our spectacular national parks. Yet, we know from the accumulating body of evidence from research undertaken all around the world that being in nature – even for a relatively short time – is good for us, both for our physical and mental wellbeing.
One of the earliest studies to conclusively make such links was undertaken in 1991, and found that a 40-minute walk in nature led to significant improvements in mood, reduced anger and aggression, and also to better recovery from mental fatigue compared with walking in an urban space or reading a magazine. In more recent studies, exposure to nature or urban green space has been associated with lower levels of stress, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved cognition in children with attention deficits and individuals with depression.
Moreover, research suggests that the benefits of growing up with access to lots of green space has a lasting effect into adulthood. A Danish study published in 2019 found that children who grow up surrounded by green spaces are less likely to develop mental disorders as adults.
Nature exposure has also been shown to boost immunity. Studies have found that forest therapy excursions boost the activity of “natural killer cells” (a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role as part of the body’s defence system, attacking infections and tumours) and elevate hormones that may be protective against heart disease, obesity and diabetes – at least over the short term.
Researchers have been careful to factor out the beneficial effects of energetic physical activity when designing their studies of nature exposure, by asking participants to sit quietly or take a gentle walk. So this is good news for those of us who prefer a stroll to strenuous exercise. What’s more, researchers have found that just 20-30 minutes in nature delivers optimal benefits (after that, they continue to accrue, but at a slower rate).
And the even better news is that to provide these benefits, nature does not need to be remote or pristine – a leafy park, a stream-side walkway, or even a quiet, tree-lined avenue can provide this “nature fix”.
The lockdown experience led many of us to realise how important our neighbourhood green spaces are – for walking, cycling, or just getting some fresh, tree-filtered air. During April this year, citizen science apps such as iNaturalist reported an upsurge in usage, indicating that people were getting out into nature in their neighbourhoods.
Our appreciation of nature at this time of crisis is not without irony, given that at the root of the pandemic is the unprecedented destruction of pristine forests, rapid urbanisation and population growth, bringing wildlife and human activities into constant and dangerous proximity and making wildlife-to-human transmission of new diseases increasingly likely. According to Livia Esterhazy, World Wildlife Fund New Zealand chief executive, Covid-19 has been a “really clear warning signal … [that] we have a world and an environment completely out of balance. The rise of pandemics is absolutely linked to the destruction and the loss of nature.”
But the lockdown also accentuated inequities in our society – not just here but in the United States and elsewhere. For those of us who live in the country or in the leafy suburbs, having more time to spend in local parks or walking along a river or coastal walkway would have felt more like a gift than an imposition. But for those living in neighbourhoods with few places to enjoy nature, or those that did not have the luxury of working from home due to their jobs or circumstances, connecting with nature may not be a priority.
Eighty-six percent of us live in cities and towns, and we lead busy lives. So if we are going to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from spending time in nature, we need more nature spaces in our cities. This does not necessarily mean more parks. With the right care and green investment, long-neglected stream corridors, weed-infested gullies, flood-prone areas unfit for development and even road verges can provide valuable greenspace for humans, while at the same time creating a network of habitat for the insects, birds and reptiles that keep our natural ecosystems functioning.
In Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand: Exploring the connection, I put out a challenge to all New Zealanders – and especially our city planners and our decision-makers: to strive for a more nature-rich future, an Aotearoa where every New Zealander can benefit from being in nature, any day of their life.