Should Nature Conservation be a Public Health Strategy?

In the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the “tonic of wilderness.” It turns out he was correct on many counts. Similarly, over a century ago, John Muir commented that”Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

These visionaries have been proven right by the recent evidence of various health-based scientists. For example, studies have found that:

  • Contact with nature restores attention, and promotes recovery from mental fatigue and the restoration of mental wellbeing.
  • Unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play is now recognized as essential to child development, particularly in natural settings, and they have many fewer mental and physical disorders.
  • Adults, too, benefit from natural settings.
  • Hospital patients need less sedation and recover faster when they see greenery.
  • Workers’ wellbeing is associated with both time in greenspace, and window views of greenery.
  • Even brief exposure to natural surroundings can change our brains positively.
  • Attention span increases considerably after nature walks (vs urban walks), and helps avoid depression.
  • Time spent outdoors can even blunt children’s chances of becoming nearsighted!
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The Edmonton and Area Land Trust has been researching the health benefits of nature for some years. We are grateful to volunteers Megan Maloney and Madeleine Baldwin, who condensed the many findings into an easy to read bullet form. We’ve now summarized the findings on a brochure.

Recently, EALT contacted the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health PLACE lab (Policy, Location and Access in Community Environments) to determine interest in collaborating in publishing the summarized findings of much of this research. Candace Nykiforuk is Associate Professor and Applied Public Health Chair at the PLACE Research Lab. She was delighted to collaborate with EALT to publish this paper, for the benefit of all.

Nykiforuk commented: "Research shows that spending time in nature improves mental and physical health and helps people manage their stress and feel happier. For children, outdoor play helps build their confidence, motor skills and strong, healthy bodies. For example, children who play outside and experience nature are more likely to value the natural world and environmental responsibility." She further stated: “Our connection to the outdoors is critical for our health, but also for the value and preservation of our natural environment.”

To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity, fails to recognize the vital important of nature in physical, spiritual and effective mental functions. Nature has been found to be a restorative place.

Similarly, policies and strategies for public health have tended to focus on treatment, but there has been little focus on the key role that a healthy environment and nature can play in preventing illness. This intrinsic link between public health and the environment has been made abundantly clear in Europe and in Australia. There is strong evidence that environmental degradation has negative impacts on human health, while the conservation of nature can deliver multiple health benefits.

While nature provides many benefits such as ensuring a supply of clean drinking water, and adapting to the impact of climate change, natural areas in and around cities are critical for healthy and sustainable communities. In our urbanizing world and growing population, protected areas are natural solutions for securing our health and wellbeing. They are the best investment we can make to tackle some of today’s biggest challenges – nature connectedness is needed to create positive impacts on human health and wellbeing.

Children and adults benefit so much from contact with nature that nature conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy.

Why don’t you head out to visit an EALT Natural Area to improve your physical and mental wellbeing?