Beth Collier: is nature accessible for everyone?
I grew up on a smallholding in rural Suffolk where I spent my entire childhood roaming fields, climbing trees, and getting to know the natural world. I am one of the lucky ones. And if you had a similar experience, so are you.
It’s very easy to overlook the fact that a lot of people have never had that formative experience. Shockingly, only 1 in 10 young people regularly play outside. Among adults, only 1 in 3 feel that they have knowledge about the natural world to pass on to younger people.
There has been a cultural shift away from nature, to the point where it's now an alien environment to many people. Obstacles relating to racism and isolation that minority ethnic groups face in accessing spaces like national parks help to explain this shift. According to a 2018 workforce report from Natural England, just 1.81% of their staff are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.
These figures contribute to feeding harmful stereotypes that nature isn’t for everyone, or to feelings of isolation and discomfort if you’re a person of colour. At my organisation, Wild in the City, we work particularly with people of colour to help them feel entitled to be in natural spaces.
Neuroscientists talk about the very real benefits that nature has on our bodies to calm our prefrontal cortex (the front of our brain), which is responsible for rumination and negative self-talk – so a walk through nature really does help us to clear our thoughts and solve problems.
Even ten minutes in a natural setting can help increase meditative feelings and good mood. It also lowers our stress hormone and helps our memory and concentration.
This is in stark contrast to the impact that cities are having on us. Just looking at the greyness, the noises, the number of demands on our attention, makes us go into "fight or flight" mode. For our physiology, it’s the same as if we're approaching a threat, so it raises our stress and our adrenaline.
When I moved into cities for university and work, it took me a good while to wonder why I was feeling a bit off. Why didn’t I feel like myself? Why was I a bit low? It was because I hadn't been in nature for a while.
Having grown up with nature on my doorstep, it was a rude awakening that I now had to make an effort to go and find nature. But I understood the impact it had on me if I didn't.
There are many different demographics in London and other areas of the country for whom nature isn't accessible. If children don’t have access to nature, it sets up a formative experience which will last throughout their life. It can be very traumatic. There can also be the emergence of shame when people realise that there's a loss, because they feel disempowered and de-skilled. They don't know how to "be" in this space. They feel tentative. They don't feel safe or secure.
There's something very powerful in establishing a lifelong relationship with nature and acknowledging it as an emotional support system that helps us feel good. Nature is so vital for health that if you're emotionally healthy it will necessarily mean that you have a good relationship with nature.
We're tackling climate breakdown. We need to tackle our social crisis as well.
Beth Collier is a nature-based psychotherapist and anthropologist. She runs a community-interest company called Wild in the City.