The environment: how do we engage and what do we gain?

Over recent years, research has increasingly emphasised the importance of the natural environment in enhancing human health and wellbeing- one of the BES’s policy priorities. Previous work suggests that reconnecting with the natural world makes us both healthier and happier. Policy-makers are increasingly identifying this vital contribution, including Defra’s recent Natural Environment White Paper which aims to strengthen connections between people and nature. The evidence base for informing policy is continually growing, however there is still a lack of understanding of how the public use the natural environment and they benefits they gain from this.

How do we engage and what do we gain?

A new report produced by Natural England has attempted to assess how people use the natural environment in England and also investigate the relationship between nature and human health and wellbeing. The report reveals the results from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey, which was commissioned in 2009 by Natural England, Defra and the Forestry Commission. In its fifth year, the work reports on the results from 2009-2014, in which interviews were carried out with over 235,000 members of the English public. The work has two main findings.

Firstly, nature is increasingly important to the English public. Over the last five years, people have been spending more time outside engaging with the environment, using it to relax, unwind, watch wildlife, enjoy the scenery and as a way to keep healthy. During 2009/10, half of the population claimed to visit the environment at least once a week – rising to around six in ten in 2013/14. The study estimates that the 42.3 million adults resident in England took a total of 2.93 billion visits to the natural environment. The majority were taken to destinations within towns, cities or countryside locations.

Secondly, the environment is important for human health and exercise. Trends suggest that people increasingly use the natural environment as a ‘green gym’. Approximately two fifths of visits were for health and exercise, estimated at 1.3 billion visits in 2013-2014. The findings also suggested that the English public receive other health and wellbeing benefits including increased happiness and lower levels of anxiety. The public also stated that being outdoors made them feel ‘calm and relaxed’ and that a visit was ‘refreshing and revitalising’. These effects are not a one-off, previous studies have revealed similar human health and wellbeing benefits in the UK. One study by the University of Essex showed that a walk in the countryside can reduce depression,  whilst research from the University of Exeter and the European Centre for Environment and Human Health suggests that the closer we live to green spaces, the lower our “mental distress” levels.

Policy implications

Research that investigates the interaction between humans and nature in England will help to fundamentally underpin our evidence base on the importance of natural capital.  According to Natural England, recent research has already been used to inform policy, support national and local decision making and for research and scientific studies. One of the largest applications has been its use as a robust evidence source to inform the delivery of a number of initiatives of the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP), including the biodiversity indicators for the Biodiversity 2020 Strategy and the creation of Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs).   

However, a clear strategy is now required in order “to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited”. The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) Third Report has set out a number of recommendations for achieving this vision. Fundamentally, to meet the government’s commitment to protect and improve the environment within a generation, the NCC advises that government work more closely with the private sector and NGOs to develop a strategy and twenty five year plan.  This report has highlighted the requirements for the protection and improvement of our natural assets. There is now an opportunity for our upcoming government to ensure that future generations continue to receive human health and wellbeing benefits from our natural environment.