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The Distance Between Humans and Nature Is Growing

Written by BeiraVibes

By German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
January 21, 2023

Young Child Mountain View

Direct or indirect interaction with nature is particularly important during childhood. Credit: Gladys Barragan-Jason

A review of scientific literature suggests that urbanization is leading to a reduction in interactions with nature, however, research in this area is limited.

The notion that human interactions with nature are declining due to urbanization is widely believed, yet there is little concrete evidence to support it. In an effort to gain a clearer understanding of this issue, scientists studied the average distance from people’s homes to the nearest areas with minimal human impact, over the past decade. They discovered that currently, humans on average live 9.7 km away from a natural area, which is 7% farther than in 2000. Europe and East Asia have the greatest average distances to natural areas, for example, 22 km in Germany and 16 km in France.

“What is striking is that all other countries in the world are following a similar pattern,” explains first author Dr. Victor Cazalis, a postdoctoral researcher at iDiv and Leipzig University.

The authors also showed that tree cover within cities has declined worldwide since 2000, particularly in Central Africa and South-East Asia. “This finding suggests that the possibility for the urban population to access green spaces is reducing as well,” concludes Dr. Gladys Barragan-Jason, a researcher at the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station and co-author of the study. “Indeed, the study reveals that the destruction of natural areas combined with a strong increase in urban population is leading to a growing spatial distance between humans and nature, especially in Asia, Africa, and South America.”

Ariège Regional Park

Outdoor activities such as visiting natural areas, here the Ariège Regional Park in France, play a key role in defining our relationship with nature and how we protect it. Credit: Antoine Bel

In the same study, the authors systematically searched for scientific publications assessing a trend in experiences of nature: from direct ones such as hiking in national parks to vicarious experiences like natural settings in cultural products like cartoons, computer games, or books. They found that the number of studies assessing these trends was very low (N=18), with a strong bias towards the US, Europe, and Japan. This shows that any claim about the extinction of nature experience is based on poor evidence and that more studies should investigate this question, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

The 18 studies found by the authors show for instance a decline in visits to nature parks in the US and Japan, a decrease in camping activities in the US, and a decrease in the number of flower species observed by Japanese children. They also find signs of disconnection in the depletion of natural elements in novels, songs, children’s albums, and animated movies, which are less and less imbued with natural imagery (as shown e.g. by an iDiv study from 2021).

Despite these examples of decline, other interactions are stagnating or even increasing. Watching wildlife documentaries or interacting with wild animals in video games is, for example, more common than a few years ago. “New ways of digitally interacting with nature have certainly emerged or increased in recent decades,” says Gladys Barragan-Jason. “But several former studies show that these interactions have a lesser effect on our sense of connection with nature than direct interaction.”

“The knowledge about these human-nature interactions is crucial, as they are key in the construction of our relationship with nature and our behaviors,” says Victor Cazalis. We need to maintain a good connection with nature in order to enable the necessary societal transformations of the 21st century. Only then can humanity ‘live in harmony with nature by 2050’ as ambitioned by our governments through the Global Biodiversity Framework that is being discussed currently in the COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity.”

Reference: “A global synthesis of trends in human experience of nature” by Victor Cazalis, Michel Loreau and Gladys Barragan-Jason, 14 December 2022, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
DOI: 10.1002/fee.2540

This research was financed inter alia by the German Research Foundation through its support of sDiv, the Synthesis Centre at iDiv (DFG; FZT-118).

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