Time to Embrace Nature During COVID-19

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Despite all the hardship it brings, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown are also giving some of us luckier ones the opportunity to step back, reflect upon, and reprioritize what really matters – including family, community, and good physical and mental health. In addition, and perhaps surprisingly, given the restrictions on travel and types of activity we’ve been able to engage in, many people have also found themselves making more time to embrace nature. Some people have started to grow their own produce; others are paying closer attention to the birds that visit their balcony or garden and for many, being allowed outside for exercise (as opposed to in a gym or via a team sport/group class), has meant they’ve been exploring the natural environment close to home – running, walking and cycling through marshes, wetlands, nature reserves, and parks. Data produced by the Canal and River Trust, the charity which looks after 2000 miles of the nation’s waterways shows growth in people staying local to discover the canal on their doorstep.[1] An especially promising insight from this data is that it finds a surge in usage among less affluent communities, who may otherwise struggle to access green spaces, particularly in cities where private gardens are a luxury and park openings have been restricted.

Even whilst people are daydreaming about their next opportunity to go on holiday, they’re taking inspiration from the experiences they’ve had closer to home – seeking out destinations that allow them to keep a safe distance from others and enjoy the simple pleasures of outdoor life, be it wide open spaces or opportunities to experience wildlife. People are also taking the opportunity to experience the natural world in virtual reality – taking advantage of online virtual tours such as the USA’s National Park Service website which allows you to walk the trails of natural wonders such as Yellowstone National Park.

It’s hardly surprising that we’re finding a better connection to nature to be a rewarding behavior. Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.[2] Even just listening to the sounds of nature can be incredibly beneficial as evidenced by work conducted by the Brighton and Sussex Medical School which found that in participants who listened to the sounds of nature, the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight-and-flight reaction in dangerous and stressful situations was at rest, while the parasympathetic system, responsible for the metabolism, recovery, and development of the body’s resources, became active.[3] A report published by the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School reveals that exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.[4] For those of us motivated by benefits that go beyond the individual, there’s also much to celebrate in what nature has to offer. As Senior Nature Campaigner at Friends of the Earth explains, “Nature performs major miracles for us every day – from giving us great views and helping to prevent floors to regulating the weather and keeping us supplied with clean water, fresh air and plentiful food.”[5]

As our new or renewed experiences and sentiments around nature abound, a key question from a behavior change perspective, is can we keep them up post-lockdown? Can we build a better connection with our natural environment all the time, rather than just on holiday or at weekends? When we reflect on our typical routines, many of us don’t normally get to experience nature on a daily basis or we’re too busy/ moving too quickly to take any of it in. Now that many of us have been afforded that opportunity, we’ve started to realize the benefits outlined above and with only nine percent of British people surveyed in a recent YouGov survey saying they want to return to life as normal after the end of the lockdown[6], could this newfound connection with nature be one of the behaviors that we continue to embrace as lockdown measures are reduced and removed?

As with any behavior change, we need the capability, opportunity, and motivation to do it. Lockdown has helped on all fronts but once expectations alter and we return to the office, do the commute, see friends and travel abroad, will we still be able to prioritize our connections with the great outdoors? It’s easy to say yes, but in reality, it may be quickly deprioritized as other aspects of life return to normal. That’s where brands that we interact with can really help us. Those sufficiently aligned with a purpose around making time for nature have an opportunity to communicate this with their audience in a compelling way – drawing on people’s newfound fondness for cleaner air, green space, and more wildlife. There are some obvious categories that spring to mind. Companies specializing in tourism, for example, can ensure that people know about the most remote locations, the best opportunities to spot flora and fauna, and the accommodation that offers back-to-nature experiences. According to its Chief Executive, Kate Mavor, English Heritage has recognized that people will be drawn to nature for its calming effects and simple pleasures post-lockdown and is encouraging people to come for a picnic and just enjoy being close to nature in the grounds of their 400 historic sites in England.[7]

There are some less obvious opportunities for brands to help us connect with nature as well – can bus or train companies encourage us to pay more attention to the environment outside the window as we travel? Can retailers selling household products highlight ways to bring greenery into the home, make the most of balconies and small gardens, or even encourage stargazing before bedtime?

Businesses should also be mindful of how they’re likely to be judged when it comes to the treatment of their employees. Are they making sure there are flexible working policies that give staff the opportunity to get fresh air and sunlight within their working day? Are they providing volunteering, team building, or staff social days that encompass outdoor experiences? Is the office located and built in such a way that it integrates the natural environment into an otherwise urban landscape? Are they encouraging their employees to cycle to work through a scheme that helps with the affordability of cycling equipment? With the potential benefits of a happier and more energized workforce, it makes business sense to help employees to incorporate behaviors that connect them with nature into part of their everyday working routines.

[1] https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/media/original/41705-data-shows-people-swapping-tourist-hotspots-and-city-centres-for-the-local-towpath-on-their-doorstep.pdf?v=20636b

[2] https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature

[3] https://www.explore-life.com/en/articles/the-sound-of-nature

[4] www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180706102842.htm

[5] https://friendsoftheearth.uk/nature/importance-nature

[6] https://www.thersa.org/about-us/media/2019/brits-see-cleaner-air-stronger-social-bonds-and-changing-food-habits-amid-lockdown

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/may/06/british-tourism-businesses-post-lockdown-plans

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