Fostering Healthy Communities
through Connection with Nature
Environmental issues need to be addressed at all levels and with a wide variety of approaches, such as international treaties, national regulations, corporate standards, technological advances, community initiatives, educational programs, and personal actions. Whether the mechanism is regulatory or voluntary and whether it happens within a country, corporation, or community, the actual decisions to prioritize environmental health happen at the level of individuals. Decision-makers at all levels are first and foremost people, and whether they are making decisions for their families or organizations and entities over which they have influence, individuals are the fundamental unit for changing the status quo and creating new norms.
As highlighted by Chawla and Derr (2012), the body of research on the life experiences that foster pro environmental behavior (PEB) can be organized to offer a general progression of key experiences that are particularly influential at different periods in life. During childhood, time in nature and family members are particularly significant influences for life-long PEB. The experiential emphasis during early childhood is on direct nature play and exploration that is, at times, facilitated by family members or teachers and in the company of peers or members of a youth organization. In middle childhood environmental socialization, a phrase coined by James and colleagues (2010), expands to include more structured knowledge, skills, and activities. During later adolescence and early adulthood, nature experiences remain important and “education, books, films, travel, student organizations, and friends help… lead to the formation of an environmental identity that crystallizes in advanced education and skills, and in affiliation with other committed environmental professionals, amateurs, or volunteers” (Chawla & Derr, 2012). During adulthood, “people increased their knowledge about issues and strategies for action through work or volunteer activities…nature experiences remain important, including the loss of valued habitats” (Chawla & Derr, 2012). Thus, people’s relationship with nature and environmental identity optimally begins with direct, informal childhood experiences and gradually proceeds to include more formal, still experience-based learning about the environment and PEB—fostering motivation to protect the natural environment as well as a sense of efficacy to do so (Chawla & Derr, 2012). As people seek to engage in or encourage experiences that effectively foster PEB, the following experiential components should be emphasized (Wells & Lekies, 2012): active, hands-on activities; addressing local issues; involvement in projects; the use of familiar and easily accessible sites; repeated exposure; active engagement of teachers; sensory experiences that make interaction with nature more real and memorable; relationships with peers and adults; novelty of experiences; and freedom to choose activities.
Sense of place. The term sense of place describes characteristics of a particular place that make it special and unique in its own right as well as the human relationship to a particular place in which they have an authentic sense of attachment and belonging. How a sense of place develops and evolves informs how people interact with their environment. Given the opportunity, children create a strong bond with the places they inhabit through direct experiences. Such ‘primal landscapes’ of one’s youth can become a part of a person’s identity, informing their relationship with subsequent places later in life and creating a greater propensity for continuing to cultivate a sense of place. The extent to which children are able to create a sense of place is strongly mediated by the influences of family as well as community and cultural norms.
Research on the relationship between sense of place and PEB recognizes that it may be possible to harness an individual’s attachment to and affect towards a place in order to influence her or his environmental behavior. Numerous studies have found place attachment to be an important antecedent to environmental awareness, pro-environmental attitudes, and PEB, with higher levels of place attachment being associated with more PEB. The affective or emotional connection between people and place is also well documented, as is the positive relationship between place affect and PEB. For example, in a study by Ramkisson, Smith, and Weilerd (2013), place affect was the strongest predictor of both low effort and high effort pro-environmental behavioral intentions.
Connectedness with nature. Connectedness with nature is “a stable state of consciousness comprising symbiotic cognitive, affective, and experiential traits that reflect, through consistent attitudes and behaviors, a sustained awareness of the interrelatedness between one’s self and the rest of nature” (Zylstra et al., 2014). Although nature connectedness is a stable individual trait, it can change based on one’s experience with nature, meaning the more time an individual spends in nature, the more connected they may feel with nature and the more concern they may feel for the natural world. Based on their review of a cross-section of more than 300 interdisciplinary sources related to connectedness with nature, Zylstra and colleagues (2014) highlight the existence of significant research finding connectedness with nature to be a reliable predictor and motivation for PEB and contributor to physical as well as psychological benefits such as “happiness and more purposeful, fulfilling, and meaningful lives”. Several specific experiences that can be particularly beneficial in fostering connectedness with nature and increasing the likelihood that people will exhibit PEB, such as hands-on ecological restoration, experiential citizen science, and cultivating naturalist skills such as observation, nature drawing and identification, tracking, and ecological mapping.
The Community Ecology Institute