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New Research Asks: Has COVID Changed Our Relationship To Nature For The Better?

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Woman Waking Outdoors At Twilight

How did your relationship with nature change this year? During a time when we've lost so much, there does seem to be one thing that many people have gained, and that's a new perspective on the world outside their windows.

In Vermont, researchers at UVM have started the work of quantifying how exactly the pandemic is transforming outdoor experiences and what this shift could mean for the future of environmentalism.

During a claustrophobic year, the outdoors became an escape.

In a new study published today in the journal PLOS One, UVM researchers provide data showing that the pandemic has sent more people outdoors.

With senior author Brendan Fisher, Ph.D., at the helm, researchers scattered QR codes across signs outside urban forests and parks in the Burlington area. Each code directed folks to an online survey that asked questions about whether the pandemic has forced them to get out in nature more, what they've been doing outside since March, etc.

One major finding was that 26% of the 400-plus park visitors who responded had never been to their local natural area before or hadn't been there in the past year. Within that group, the majority of people said that they highly valued the opportunity to get out into nature during a time of such stress and isolation.

Fisher, a natural resource economist and the director of the environmental program at UVM, sees this as a promising sign. "Even if the initial step in the woods happened because they really couldn't do anything else, it turned out to be a really valuable, important experience," he says on a call to mbg. "My hope is that these are the kind of gateway experiences that get people more engaged with their local nature."

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The impact of nature on well-being.

Fisher isn't the only one in academia studying this shifting human-nature relationship. He's not even the only one on campus. Coincidentally, a separate research team at UVM published a report last week that asked some similar questions.

For this research, a team disseminated two online surveys—one in May, one in October—that asked over 3,200 Vermonters to sum up their recent nature experiences using a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions. In analyzing the results of the first survey, they, too, found that a significant number of people had done more outdoor activities since COVID-19 began.

Their data shows that watching wildlife, gardening, making art, and relaxing alone outside were some of the most popular activities, and women increased their nature use in more ways than men on average. Also, 59% of respondents said that nature had also helped give them a greater sense of mental health and well-being during this time.

No two people have experienced this pandemic the same way. But if this research is any indication, many of us have found solace and support in nature through it all. "We noticed more about our own place and felt really connected to our own place," Rachelle Gould, Ph.D., the senior author, of this study, tells mbg. "What does that mean moving forward?"

The bigger picture.

Both Fisher and Gould are quick to point out that their relatively small studies can't be applied to the general population. "Do I think that our findings in Vermont stand in for the globe? No way," says Fisher. "But do I think places all over the U.S. are experiencing similar outcomes? Absolutely."

Moving forward, they expect to see more research coming out that investigates how other global populations have taken to the outdoors for direction during a rudderless time.

When combined, these studies could make a compelling case for the mental health benefits of well-maintained outdoor spaces—and the need to make them more widely available moving forward.

"[The pandemic] showed how important having that access to nature is, even if it's just in your neighborhood," says Tatiana Gladkikh, a graduate researcher on Gould's team. "That brings another issue of equity and justice."

In the future, the team hopes to share their survey findings with government officials to stress the importance of setting aside natural spaces for the public to enjoy. (According to The Trust for Public Land, 100 million people in the U.S. don't currently have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home—an outsize proportion of whom live in low-income, minority neighborhoods.)

Ultimately, only time will tell how this pandemic is remembered and whether it will go down as a turning point in how humans value and protect the natural world. In the meantime, all we can do is be grateful for the outdoor moments we do have; for the feeling of getting a patch of earth all to yourself, pulling down your mask, and remembering what it feels like to take in fresh air.

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