Is nature accessible to all?
I’m writing this a few days after a snowstorm froze West Yorkshire into a belated winter wonderland. A few hopeful crocuses and daffodils that had sprung up in my garden as the days got longer were buried under a thick blanket of snow. And yet, as the snow melted away, I was amazed to see them still standing, a little battered maybe but still cheerfully waving in the wind.
It was a lovely sight, to see these flowers still standing after such an onslaught. It made me think about resilience, about how something small and kind-looking could still weather it through a storm. It made me think about patience, and about working through hard times.
This is a small, recent example about how nature has made me think about my mental wellbeing, but the relationship between nature and mental health has been studied for a long time. You may remember the encouragement to get into the outdoors over those long months of lockdown, and at Curious Motion we’ve recently launched Welland Walks an opportunity for members of the Elland community to enjoy a gentle stroll along an accessible route and enjoy the scenery around them.
Research published in 2019 claimed that spending two hours a week in nature helps us to maintain good health and wellbeing, and the mental health charity Mind says enjoying nature can help us release feelings of stress, anger and make us feel more relaxed.
Not all nature is equal however. The Mental Health Foundation has found that the cleaner a natural area is, the more mental health benefits we can experience from it. This means we need areas free from litter, and away from traffic pollution and noise.
Herein lies an inequality problem with how we enjoy nature. Clean spaces like this tend to be out of cities, usually in wealthier areas, meaning that it’s harder for people in underserved urban areas to access high quality natural resources. In fact, only 35% of the lowest-earning households in the UK live within a ten minute walk of a green space they can access, as opposed to 59% of the highest earning households. This problem involves racial inequalities too – city communities with a 40% or higher ethnic-minority population are 11 times less likely to have access to high quality green spaces than mostly white communities.
Moreover, many green spaces are still not wheelchair accessible, lack toilet facilities, or are difficult to get to without a car. Some groups of people, such as women or people from ethnic minority backgrounds may simply feel unsafe to go and explore some areas.
And yet, people who face barriers in their lives are more likely to face struggles with their mental health, and therefore it’s vital that they have safe, clean and accessible outdoor spaces to go and enjoy.
Even though these are big and complex issues there are some things we can do as individuals to help increase access to nature too – this includes allies, who can help make powerful change alongside those who experience barriers.
For example, if you’re a non-disabled person, try and pay attention to the accessibility of a place you’re visiting. If you can spot issues with accessibility, and you’re in an area that’s managed by a team of staff, consider mentioning it to them, or writing an observation down in a visitors book. If you’re organising a community activity, or suggesting a walk with a group of friends, consider the access needs of the people coming, and choose a route that is wheelchair and buggy friendly, or that has frequent places to sit down and rest.
Sometimes it’s about asking questions and collecting feedback too – it’s likely we’ll get things wrong sometimes but if we can give and receive feedback with kindness and compassion we can make real change.
We can also lobby our local MPs to put more measures in place to cut down on problems such as litter and anti-social behaviour in natural spaces, so that women and minority groups can have more access to safe, green areas.
After all, nature is free. It is what was here before humans and it is what will remain once we’re gone. It’s an integral part of human existence, and not having access to it, is, in my opinion, to remove their right to enjoy the world they were born into. The more that we insist that nature is for everyone, the more it will become the norm.
Until next time! Isla x