This systematic review of the literature sought to assess the diversity of subjects, methods and motivations of research on human-nature connections (HNC). It also sought to identify clusters of published papers and their characteristics and consider how future research on HNC can better inform sustainability science. The review included 475 papers published between 1984 and 2015. Papers included in the review were peer reviewed, published in an academic journal, reported on empirical data, and studied a type of relationship humans have with natural environments. Additionally, all the papers were published in English.
Of the 475 papers included in the review, 345 (72.6%) were published from 2010 onwards. Most of the papers focused on the individual versus community or society and left “nature” undefined. The different groups of people studied include children, students, resource users, locals, tourists, and people in governance. Three subgroups or clusters of papers were identified: HNC as mind, HNC as experience, and HNC as place. Of these, the "HNC as mind" cluster showed the fastest growth in research over time. This cluster is characterised by studies that address cognitive and philosophical aspects of HNC at the individual level. Studies in the HNC as mind cluster often focused on psychological motivations for pro-environmental behaviors and tended to use quantitative research methods. Studies in the “HNC as experience” cluster tended to use qualitative research methods to describe people's experiences of particular local environments. Studies in the “HNC as place” cluster typically used quantitative surveys to explore people's emotional connections to specific natural places. Across the studies, five types of HNC were identified: cognitive, experiential, emotional, philosophical, and material. More than one-third of the studies addressed only one of these types. Just 10 papers (2.1%) studied all five types. Over 35% of the papers studied cognitive connections, 22% experiential, 21.8% emotional, 13.9% philosophical, and 6.5% material connections. Most of the studies were based on observational data rather than experimental or mixed datasets. Psychology was the most represented discipline in the review (29.4%). Other disciplines included social sciences (21.4%), environmental disciplines (15.2%), tourism (10.4%), education (10.3%), planning (7,0%), and health (6.4%).
While this review indicates that HNC is receiving increasing attention in the academic literature, the findings also suggest that related research “has yet to reach its full potential in supporting humanity on a pathway towards sustainability.” Three key priorities are proposed for future research: greater integration of complementary perspectives in HNC research; further extension of HNC research; and more targeted application of insights to foster sustainability transformation. In discussing the first priority (greater integration of complementary perspectives), the authors note how the three clusters -- HNC as mind, HNC as experience, and HNC as place -- might be integrated in future research. While such integration is likely to be difficult, the effort “could facilitate cross-fertilization of HNC knowledge” and be helpful in the pursuit of solutions-oriented research. The paper concludes with “a call for researchers and practitioners to take stock of the existing evidence, integrate insights across methodological, epistemological and geographical boundaries, and pursue novel interdisciplinary research that can generate knowledge for a sustainable future characterized by strong connections between humanity and the biosphere.”