I am fortunate to have almost immediate access to natural places where the only things I hear are the sound of the wind in the trees, the bubbly chatter of nearby streams, and the sweetness of birdsong all around. I have lived in cities in the past, but nearly twenty years ago I made a conscious decision to move to the edge of a national park. Can my yearning to be close to nature be explained by a simple life-style choice? Or was my re-location all those years ago a behaviour driven by something more fundamental? Researchers Daniel Baxter and Luc Pelletier would suggest the latter. After an extensive review of the literature on nature relatedness, Baxter and Pelletier (2019) came to the conclusion that there was strong support for the claim that nature relatedness is a human need, and that many aspects of our physical and psychological well-being depend on that need being fulfilled. This conclusion was reached by judging the findings of multiple studies against a set of criteria. What follows is a summary of those criteria and how they were met.
If nature relatedness is a human need, it should not only produce positive outcomes when present, but also negative outcomes when absent.
The positive benefits of nature connection to physical and mental health are robust and well established. Various forms of nature relatedness have been shown to positively impact on recovery from physiological stress, enhance and support psychological well-being, and enable recovery from cognitive and attention fatigue. However, for nature relatedness to be a need, it should do more than benefit people when present: it should result in pathological effects when absent. Evidence of such effects are abundant. For example, after controlling for socioeconomic status and other demographics, urban children have shown a higher prevalence of mood disorders, self-harming, dysfunctional communication and thought processes, Asperger disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and generalised anxiety disorder, than rural children. This suggests that growing up in an environment where nature is spare and less accessible leads to more pathologies during the developmental stage.
Especially interesting was one study that used monozygotic twins who had grown up together but lived separately in adult life. The study investigated the impact of green space around the twins' homes. After controlling for income, levels of exercise, local population size and the socioeconomic status of their neighbourhoods, it was found that the twins with less access to green space suffered significantly higher levels of depression and stress.
Adult studies have shown that those who enjoy 10% more green space than the average within a 1km radius of home show lowered prevalence rates of coronary heart disease, muscular complaints, depression, anxiety disorders, asthma, migraines and a number of infectious diseases.
So, it seems that there are physical and psychological benefits to be had from relatedness to nature at all stages of life, and a higher chance of pathology when we are cut off from the natural world.
If nature relatedness is really a fundamental human need, its effects on the human body and mind should be universal rather than culturally dependent.
If there is something fundamental about peoples’ need for a relationship with nature, then it should be apparent in one form or another across a variety of sociocultural groups. The need for nature relatedness should be universal. Whilst this is a harder argument to make, Baxter and Pelletier (2019) provide some evidence for this by having included in their evaluation studies from the USA, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the UK and Japan. Thus, the evidence they present can at least claim to have come from a variety of cultural contexts.
Nature relatedness should represent a need in itself - not just a derivative of another need.
What if the need for nature relatedness wasn’t so much about nature itself, but just about relatedness? After all, feeling connected to something greater than our individual selves is a typical nature experience which can even lead to numinous feelings of transcendence. This question was addressed by a study that found nature relatedness to be associated with a whole slew of psychological benefits (subjective vitality, positive affect, feelings of personal growth) even after controlling for benefits derived from other forms of connectedness (family, culture, friends etc). It seems therefore that there is something about nature relatedness that cannot be derived from just any type of connectedness.
Perhaps the benefits of nature relatedness are in fact derived from the physical activity associated with hiking and walking, both of which are known to produce physical and mental well-being; but studies have demonstrated that even when physical activity is taken out of the equation, the benefits of immersion in nature remain. Where physical activity has been a factor, it has also been shown that immersive experiences of nature elevate the measured benefits above those of physical activity alone.
The need for nature relatedness should be a driver for behaviours whose goal is to fulfill that need.
One study that supported this claim looked at Norwegian office workers. The study compared employees who had a window with a view next to their desks with those who did not. The results found that employees with no window view were five times more likely to place plants in their office space, and three times more likely to hang pictures of nature on their walls. This is just one example of the evidence supporting the idea that where nature is absent, we will proactively seek to compensate for that absence.
Baxter and Pelletier’s (2019) conclusions certainly rang true with my own personal experience, and it got me thinking about where the effort in promoting the value of the natural world should be focused. If anywhere, surely it should be focused on urban populations who may not even be aware that a lack of relationship to nature is an impediment to living life to the full. In a climate crisis, how can we expect people to fight, to make personal sacrifices, for something that is little more than an abstract idea? Never mind reforesting our national parks and farmlands – we need to reforest our urban landscapes. It isn’t enough to relate to nature as a climate statistic or a biology class. Nature must be known, and nature must be fallen in love with. What we love, we will surely protect.
For the sake of brevity, I have been selective in presenting what was an extensive literature review. For those interested in reading the source paper in full, I have provided the reference below.
Baxter, D. E., & Pelletier, L. G. (2019). Is nature relatedness a basic human psychological need? A critical examination of the extant literature. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 60(1), 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000145
Furthermore, you may be interested in a link to the organisation Cities4Forests. See if your city is a member. If it is, you could find out how you can get involved. If it isn't, you could write to your local authority and ask them to look into it.
I'm a social scientist and data analyst and I'm in love with nature. One Beautiful Earth is where I bring these roles together. I keep a regular blog where you can read all about the latest science behind nature connection and the psychology of human responses to environmental issues such as climate change and much more besides.