Room with a view – bringing nature home

A UK study found that less contact with nature in urban areas correlates with poorer health across many areas

Finding green spaces within a 2km radius can be a  greater challenge for urban dwellers. Photograph:  Bryan O’Brien

Finding green spaces within a 2km radius can be a greater challenge for urban dwellers. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Prior to the Covid-19 restrictions we were free to roam at will, and could find walking, running or cycling routes as far away as our resources, transport and available time could take us.

Now the area that people can use to exercise has been severely reduced. For most people this has dwindled to a circle with a radius of 2km. For those that live in urban areas their opportunity to walk in or near green areas may have been severely reduced.

Living in an increasingly urban environment has been shown to result in a rapid decline in the dose of nature that people experience. This matters because authors of a UK study found that this lower dose of nature in urban areas was correlated with poorer health across multiple domains.

However, in those same urban areas increasing the nature dose could have the greatest effects as the benefits of nature accrue quickly from low levels and only more slowly if you are already surrounded by nature.

Social distancing restrictions have brought into sharp focus the inequitable distribution of green or blue space available in different parts of the country. Take a look at a map which highlights green spaces Ireland within a 2km radius of different points and see how the area of green space changes depending on where you put the pointer.

Those who live in rural areas may experience greater “incidental nature” doses as they go about their daily lives surrounded by green space even if they do not have a local park close by.

Single room

For those who are cocooned their ability to interact with nature has been reduced to their house or apartment, and for those who are self-isolating it may just be a single room.

Views from those rooms are important, with researchpublished by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Ireland showing that a greater view of the sea from someone’s house was associated with lower risk of depression in older people.

Being able to see a tree, green grass, flowers or a view of water from a window is unequally distributed, with many homes having restricted or heavily urbanised views.

The public health benefits of nature are clear, and in the long term the design of urban areas is critical to widening access to nature for all. So during the Covid-19 confinement can we maximise the benefits of nature for people living with very different degrees of access to physical nature?

There is an increasing body of research on the effects of nature documentaries on people’s wellbeing and attitudes to environmental issues. Watching nature documentaries like Plant Earth II can increase positive emotions, and has been shown to generate awareness of the species featured.

By analysing trends on twitter and engagement with Wikipediaresearchers were able to detect a response in people’s attitudes that went beyond the duration of the show.

Open window

An open window can let in light, air and birdsong even if a view is not available. With the reduction in traffic noise due to Covid-19 restrictions coinciding with bird breeding season, there are good opportunities to hear the songs and calls of common bird species from the coos of pigeons through to the lilting songs of blackbirds and robins.

Birdsong has been shown to increase mental wellbeing. If you don’t have many local birds or a window to open you can listen to birdsong recorded in natural areas like this dawn chorus from Co Laois.

Researchers are working on how to identify those elements of nature which are responsible for the benefits to our physical and mental health, and see if they can be packaged up and delivered to us for maximum benefit.

It may be difficult to replicate the full experience of nature through videos and recordings as being in real nature engages so many of our senses at once. However, for those living in areas of nature deprivation, finding out how best to replicate the benefits of nature may be very valuable.

The increased localisation of our nature experiences right now may make us more aware of what we have around us.

Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin

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