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Reciprocal care for nature and wellbeing

Two young women talking together on a bench in an urban park


Increasing the use of the outdoors is one way the Scottish Government measures the prosperity and well-being of its citizens. Encouraging, managing, and investing in outdoor recreation has cross-sectoral policy significance relating to health, planning, environment, education, and tourism. There are the ‘Our Natural Health Service’ programme and ‘green and nature prescription’ initiatives which aim to integrate the outdoors as a nature-based solution for public health challenges. Policymakers, practitioners, and scholars are increasingly recognising the need to cultivate conditions for a reciprocal relationship between people and the environment, one that nurtures the human community and integrates care for, and responsible access to, nature by people. Greenspace quality can also perform a civic role by encouraging people outdoors which can bring financial benefits through contributions to business

Childhood experiences shape participation in outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship behaviour. Nature engagement is a learned behaviour which highlights the influence of role models and a need to understand early life-course (dis)engagement moments and the development of associated capabilities. Our previous work has identified key transition points where nature engagement changes, with place and gender as contributing factors. There is a ‘gender gap’ in the use of the outdoors; parks and recreational areas are used differently (and frequently less often) by girls than boys, and emerging demand among policy and practice is to understand the behaviour toward, and experience of, nature by teenagers.

Research on the benefits of greenspace has identified quality as of more importance than quantity. This identifies a key gap in the robust analysis of the costs and benefits of greenspace investment. Despite ongoing interest in the characterisation of spatial qualities of greenspaces, definitions and indicators of environmental quality are seldom uniform. With increasing emphasis on the multi-functionality of these spaces, there is also a need to further investigate user functionality, contribution to biodiversity conservation, public health, and mitigation of climate change effects. It is also important to bring together different knowledge from across sectors for novel and transformative gain.


  • What are the mechanisms through which greenspaces positively impact mental and physical health and well-being?
  • How can we better measure the cost-benefits of investing in green spaces?
  • Does access to green space in the early years correlate to health and well-being benefits later in life?


The purpose of this project is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms through which both diverse and responsible engagement with, and investment in, quality outdoor nature places can be promoted.


Investing in quality greenspace 

To support investment in quality greenspace, we are synthesising definitions of quality characteristics and metrics and are developing and demonstrating the applicability of a ‘toolkit framework’ for measuring the costs and benefits.


Longitudinal lived experience investigation

This project is exploring the association between childhood nature engagement and well-being through a life course lens, generating user-led perspectives on greenspace quality, a particular population’s (dis)engagement with and behaviours toward the outdoors. This field investigation pays particular attention to the personal experience of greenspace and the temporal relationship with and derived benefits from nature. This provides a voice for a group who are seldom the protagonist of nature-engagement research. The project is producing new knowledge on the use of, behaviours in and relationship with greenspaces for a particular group of young people to inform education-related policy, planning and interventions to promote health, well-being, and responsible outdoor use.


Nature engagement capabilities

Barriers to using the outdoors suggest they are multiple, co-occurring and reinforcing, and that the many identities that any one person inhabits could shape differences in outdoor use patterns between population subgroups. Our blending of an integrative public health behaviour change model with research on ‘cognitive maps’ about the environment is developing the idea of ‘capabilities’ for nature engagement and how interventions to increase the use of the outdoors can help enable and empower people to engage with the outdoors more fully. A new biodiversity-health framework and our current empirical work investigating transcendent experiences associated with Scottish landscapes identify a potential pathway for biodiversity’s contribution to wellbeing. Our research into irresponsible access suggests that many of those acting irresponsibly know better but are unable to act better in the moment. A desk-based synthesis brings these together. The field-based research will utilise a unique combination of methods to unpack these complex issues.

Given the multiple drivers of this project, we are working with stakeholders from across sectors to generate timely, consequential, and solutions-oriented syntheses and new evidence to support strategic decision-making.

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