By Aoife Kiernan
The grounding effects of a walk in the forest or by the sea are hard to miss. Many of us instinctively know that spending time in nature is healing, peaceful, a method of recentering ourselves and reorienting our problems in the grand scheme of the world.
Nature is a Human Right is a campaign founded by Ellen Miles, a writer and activist from London. The campaign aims to make access to nature a human right by lobbying the UN while also encouraging people to work within their communities to create space for nature.
Historically the majority of the human population have resided in rural areas, and it was only in the past decade that we crossed the line to become a species of majority urban dwellers. As a result, our access to green spaces has dwindled as land is prioritised for building an ever-expanding urban jungle. More than 100 million American people live without easy access to green spaces within walking distance, as do 2.7 million people living in the UK.
Access to nature is a socio-economic issue, with more deprived areas having fewer public green spaces and people with lower incomes much less likely to have a private garden.
Spending time in nature has been scientifically proven to benefit people’s mental and physical health, as well as increasing our compassion and making it easier for us to retain information and perform academically.
Exposure to green spaces reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, premature death, type II diabetes, stillbirth and high blood pressure. This is often attributed to a corresponding increase in exercise levels for people who spend time outdoors, however other examples of how nature can increase our physical health have little relation to exercise levels.
Patients recover quicker from surgery if they have a view of trees from their window than if their window faces a brick wall, spending less time in hospital post-op, as shown in a group of cholecystectomy patients in a suburban hospital in Pennsylvania. Epidemiological studies show that living in an area with high biodiversity corresponds with a more effective immune system. Living in urban areas decreases our contact with a wide range of microbes, leaving our defences less prepared for infections. Spending time in nature allows for microbial input from the environment, which encourages an immune response, in time helping to protect the body from other infections.
The physiological benefits of access to green spaces are undeniable. Looking at the patterns and shapes found in plants, animals and rock formations reduces stress by as much as 60%. Exercising in nature can boost self-esteem, especially amongst young people, and the sound of birdsong, water and wind reduce anger, fear and stress. Even the presence of trees along streets affects mental wellbeing, with one study showing that for every tree planted per square km of street there were 1.18 fewer anti-depressant prescriptions per thousand population.
“Spending time in nature can increase our memory and attention span by up to 20%”
Sitting by the window of the Ussher library might help your exam performance, as nature also positively affects our ability to learn and retain information. Urban environments require directed attention – avoiding being hit by a car, for example, and contain dramatic stimuli, which is draining and requires a lot of the brain’s capacity. Nature is filled with intriguing stimuli which gently grab our attention. Spending time in nature can increase our memory and attention span by up to 20%. It has also been shown to increase children’s IQ and prevent burnout.
The presence of trees in urban environments reduces violence, including domestic violence, and urban gardens strengthen communities and increase resilience.
The Nature is a Human Right campaign encourages people to create green spaces themselves in their local communities. This includes reclaiming brownfield sites and guerilla gardening. They have also got a petition to the UN to enshrine contact to nature in our human rights.
Conservation of the natural world can feel like a constant losing battle. In our anthropocentric world, it can be difficult to put other living things above the needs and wants of humans. However, we can ensure that nature is valued and prioritised when creating by enshrining access to nature in our human rights.