Understanding the Nature of Nature Connections

    April 28, 2017
    by Lois Morrison

    At the Harold M. and Adeline S. Morrison Family Foundation, we believe that connecting communities with nature is vital for community health and environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, Americans have grown disconnected from nature in many communities, restricting them from the myriad benefits of time spent outdoors. In order to better understand barriers to nature connections, the Morrison Family Foundation was proud to support The Nature of Americans study, co-led by the late Professor Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University and researchers from DJ Case & Associates.

    Dr. Kellert’s body of research spanned over four decades and largely dealt with attitudes toward the natural world. Throughout his career, Kellert and his colleagues published numerous studies that analyzed perceptions and attitudes towards conservation, wildlife, and environmental management. Our initial interest in funding The Nature of Americans was the opportunity to build on Kellert’s life-long work at a national scale. The resulting research and study is a tremendous source of information on how we think about, relate to, and experience the outdoors. The national report The Nature of Americans: Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection was released on April 26, 2017.

    Completing their research in December 2016, researchers interviewed or surveyed nearly 12,000 adults and children in major cities in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois. Through a series of focus groups and surveys, researchers collected information on participants’ values, attitudes, knowledge, preferences, and beliefs surrounding outdoor activities, nature’s impacts on health and happiness, nature and spirituality, time spent outdoors, etc. Respondents’ age, gender, ethnicity, income levels, and education levels were recorded, allowing researchers to analyze trends across demographic groups.

    The Nature of Americans reminds us of the foundational role nature has played in shaping our country’s history and culture. The data collected over the course of the study supports what those who have worked in this field have intuitively known—that a gap exists between attitudes and behaviors when it comes to spending time outside. Despite spending little time outdoors (less than five hours per week for American adults), a strong appreciation for nature persists in Americans. Moreover, the majority of those surveyed said that time spent in nature was beneficial to their physical, psychological, and social health. Overall, Americans know what the data now shows us—that spending time outside can lead to a host of benefits.

    What accounts for this gap between values and behaviors? The study found significant barriers to outdoor recreation across the board. Researchers attributed these barriers to five society-wide phenomena:

    • Barriers to physical access to nature;
    • Lack of time, money, resources;
    • Declining dependence on nature for subsistence;
    • New technologies; and
    • Expectations about contact with nature.

    The investigators synthesized their findings and provided a list of twenty-two recommendations for connecting Americans and nature. These recommendations include:

    • For adults and children, promote nature not only as a place for experiences, but also as a place for involvement and care;
    • Carefully consider how different sectors promote what “good” connection with nature is or ought to be;
    • Work to lower the perceived costs of participation in recreational activities;
    • Build partnerships among professionals in healthcare, education, urban planning, conservation, community development, and other sectors; and
    • Provide socially safe and satisfying places outdoors, especially for urban and minority adults and children.

    Perhaps the most exciting outcome of this study is the incredible wealth of data that was collected. While the findings and recommendations of the investigators fall into more traditional categories of thinking about connecting people and nature, the data presents endless opportunities to ask and begin to answer new questions about the nature of nature connections. This data has the potential to serve as a powerful evidence base that can be used to design cities and neighborhoods, strengthen environmental education programs, facilitate new partnerships, understand regional or generational differences in attitudes, and advocate for access to the outdoors in all communities. In order to realize the full value of this research, we must ask bold questions that will advance the field, identify vehicles for sharing this information, and connect with new partners who can utilize this data to advance shared goals.

    The Nature of Americans illuminates what many of us have known to be true for years — that we enjoy and benefit from our time outdoors, but don't get outside nearly enough; that access to, and comfort in, nature is divided along racial lines; and that we develop a love for nature when we are able to experience it regularly and socially. Now — armed with data affirming these statements — I am hopeful that we will all take more seriously the importance of connecting children and adults with the natural world. We look forward to supporting the creative and thoughtful programming that this data demands of us.

    Lois Morrison serves as executive director of the Harold M. and Adeline S. Morrison Family Foundation, which promotes environmental education opportunities for children and families in underserved communities. Lois was previously director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Program and has extensive conservation policy and project management experience. Lois serves on the board of a local land trust, is active in the Donors Forum of Illinois’ Environmental Grantmakers and Family Foundations committees, and serves on the Blue Sky Funders Forum steering committee.


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