What is it about?

Robust research shows that exposure to nature supports a variety of physical, emotional, mental, and cognitive benefits, although access to urban nature settings poses a vexing issue for health equity. What makes up nature exposure and how different population subgroups regard and interact with nature remains ambiguous for gauging health targets. This study qualitatively explored factors which shape nature exposure to better understand the development of individual relationships with nature and the possible health implications of nature exposure across adulthood. Extensive focus group discussions involving 127 individuals of diverse race, region, age, and nature affinity across the U.S. probed the origins of nature-seeking tendencies as well as reluctances to engage with nature that result in distinct patterns of access and use. Findings were organized through inductive thematic analysis, leading us to discover who is being exposed to nature and under what conditions continued exposure occurs. Three principal themes emerged from our research. First, persons or organizations and place of origin make up the formative influences in childhood that foster adult nature engagement. Second, perceptual, material, and physical barriers detract individuals from nature engagement, but these obstacles tend to differ by generation, urbanicity, and socioeconomic status. Third, one’s current setting comprised of natural and built environments competes in shaping active nature-seeking relationships. We found early life exposures outdoors, personal mentorship, and organizational affiliation were the experiential factors most strongly influencing how individuals are socialized to nature and which solder lifelong nature attachment that manifests into adulthood. In contrast, changing population patterns, modern childhood, inequity, social dynamics, metropolitan growth, and urban renewal explained individuals’ alienation from nature. Formative pathways and obstacles occurring upstream of adult nature engagement merit understanding as they may contribute to later-life health disparities.

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Why is it important?

The general assumption that if you build it, they’ll come, doesn’t fully hold for greenspace. Municipal parks departments have observed facilities underutilization. Park non-use speaks to the need for programmatic services across generations, safety assurances, and mentorship. In speaking with individuals from inner-city teens to conservation agents asking what primes adults toward nature relationships, we found that nature engagement was a learned experience for most individuals that has its origins in childhood. However, formative influences that shaped nature affinity for middle-aged adults and older were much less present for younger adults due to background societal transformations. Routine nature-seeking as a health-promoting behavior takes on mounting importance to counter physical and emotional stressors posed by urbanization, time demands, and modern lifestyles. User input can help design urban natured environments where people want to develop recurrent and habitual engagement with nature that is available to all.


“While zip codes do matter in terms of greenspace availability, accessing nature to cultivate the health benefits that nature contact is shown to provide is much more complex than proximity alone. Understanding nature affinity and how it is activated is the key to democratizing nature use.”

Linda Tomasso
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Implications of disparities in social and built environment antecedents to adult nature engagement, PLoS ONE, September 2022, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0274948.
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