Improving access to and contact with nature may promote pro-environmental behavior

Alcock, I., White, M. P., Pahl, S., Duarte-Davidson, R., & Fleming, L. E. (2020). Associations between pro-environmental behaviour and neighbourhood nature, nature visit frequency and nature appreciation: Evidence from a nationally representative survey in England. Environment International, 136.

Research on associations between people's connections to nature and their pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) has generally been limited to smaller-scale samples. This study addressed this research gap by exploring the relationships between PEBs and people's neighborhood exposure to nature, their frequency of nature visits, and their psychological appreciation of the natural world using data from a nationally representative sample of more than 24,000 people in England.

Researchers drew data from the annual Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey, the UK's official national statistics and representative of the adult population of England. The age range represented in this data base was 16 to over 65. This study considered the amount of greenspace in an individual's neighborhood and neighborhood proximity to the coast as measures of “neighborhood nature”.  This data was based on urban-rural classification and the Generalised Land Use Database. Four categories of nature exposure were used: Urban, low greenspace; Urban, medium greenspace; Urban, high greenspace; and Rural. Data used for “nature visit frequency” was based on responses to the question “Thinking about the last 12 months, how often, on average, have you spent your leisure time out of doors (e.g., parks, woodlands, beaches) away from your home?”. A score for “nature appreciation” was derived from a 5-point Likert scale asking participants to indicate “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree” to three statements: (a) Spending time out of doors (including in my own garden) is an important part of my life; (b) There are many natural places I may never visit but I am glad they exist; (c) Having open green spaces close to where I live is important. A score for “Pro-environmental behaviors” was based on a self-report measure included in the MENE survey addressing seven specific behaviors – some considered “private” sphere behaviors (recycling; buying eco-friendly and seasonal/local products); others “public” sphere behaviors (encouraging others to be pro-environmental; environmental organization membership; and environmental volunteering).

Results showed that the more individuals visited nature for recreation and the more they appreciated the natural world, the more PEB they reported. These findings held across both the entire sample of participants and key socio-demographic groups (e.g., groups defined by age, gender, & sociodemographic status). While rural and coastal dwellers reported more PEB than urban dwellers, situational constraints and opportunities may have played a role in this finding. There was some evidence of nature visits compensating for low neighborhood nature. Effects of neighborhood nature also differed across specific environmental behaviors. Overall results indicated that neighborhood nature had direct and indirect effects via visits and appreciation.

These findings “provide strong support for the argument that people who have greater appreciation of the natural environment, and spend more recreational time in it, also report more pro-environmental behaviours.” Results highlighted by the researchers as being especially important related to positive associations between PEB and high neighborhood greenspace and coastal proximity for both high and low socio-economic status households. This finding suggests that improving access to and contact with nature may promote PEB across different socio-economic groups. “Efforts to increase contact through improving social participation and physical infrastructure, i.e., through both influencing perceptions to make people want to visit natural environments, and through developing neighbourhood design policies to improve access to natural spaces in urban settings, may thus play a part in encouraging more sustainable behaviours.”

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