Research Summary

Visitation to Natural Areas on Campus and its Relation to Place Identity and Environmentally Responsible Behaviors

Time in Natural Places Linked with Place Identity and Environmentally Responsible Behavior

The Journal of Environmental Education

What types of students are likely to visit natural environments on campus, and how might these visits affect their behavior? The author of this paper approached these questions, among others, by surveying students at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

A range of research supports the connection between time spent in nature and an increased concern for environmental issues, especially when the type of activity is appreciative (that is, activities such as hiking or camping, where appreciating nature is a key part of the activity) as opposed to consumptive (such as hunting or fishing) or mechanized (such as snowmobiling or ATV riding). Although the link between time spent in nature and concern for the environment is fairly well established, the specific chain of mechanisms linking time in nature to environmental concern is more difficult to isolate. One proposed mechanism is that increased time spent engaging in appreciative nature activities leads to the formation of place identity. In turn, this stronger connection to a place may lead to increased care for and protection of that place.

This study investigated this idea by analyzing student use of natural areas on a college campus. Through online surveys with 115 undergraduate students, the author examined students’ interactions with the natural areas on campus and the associated outcomes in terms of students’ identification with natural areas and reported environmental behaviors (the author relied on the students’ reports of their behaviors, not measures of their actual behaviors).

The author first examined who visits these natural areas on campus and for what purposes. The results suggest that most respondents primarily visited for recreational purposes, and most indicated they visited in order to enjoy nature. Students who were younger visited more frequently than older students, and students who lived on campus visited more often than commuters. Students who majored in humanities, environmental studies, or art reported higher visitation frequencies than those who majored in business, natural science, or social science.

The author found correlations between self-reported environmentally responsible behavior and the students’ frequency of visits, whether they were visiting as part of a course, and their place identity. In other words, students who visited more frequently, visited natural areas as part of a course requirement, or expressed stronger place identity were more likely to report environmentally responsible behavior. Interestingly, time spent in outdoor leisure activities was not significantly related to environmentally responsible behavior. Place identity was associated with both frequency of visits and visiting as part of a course. Further analyses showed that majoring in humanities, environmental studies, or art was significantly correlated with both place identity and environmentally responsible behaviors. In addition, students who frequently visited the natural places on campus demonstrated significantly greater place identity and more frequent environmentally responsible behaviors. Finally, students who visited natural areas as part of a course had significantly stronger place identity than students who visited only recreationally.

The results of this research demonstrate that the more frequently students visit natural areas on campus, the stronger their identification with these areas will be and the more environmentally responsible behaviors they will report. The author believes that “these results support previous literature touting the importance of outdoor experiences on place identification.” But the author also cautions that “at the same time, it is important to note that these results do not provide evidence for a causal link between outdoor experiences and environmental outcomes.”

The Bottom Line

This study supports previous research demonstrating the positive correlations between time spent in natural areas as part of a course and both increased place identity (an emotional connection to a place) and environmentally responsible behaviors. Although this research does not suggest that all time spent outdoors affects place identity, it does suggest that spending time outdoors as part of a course is associated with increased place identity, which in turn is associated with environmentally responsible behavior. More research with a larger sample could help clarify these results, but, for now, they suggest that structured outdoor experiences like those offered in environmental education can help build place identity, which often is associated with positive environmental behaviors.