Nature Nearby: Moving beyond nature ‘access’

A guest blog by Dr Sarah Bell, University of Exeter.

“I think nature has become more important to me in some ways, now that I find it harder to get to it… because it’s unnecessary that it’s harder to get to, so it feels like an unnecessary separation”

This is a pertinent quote from one of the participants in our two-year ‘Sensing Nature’ research project; a project that invites us to question how nature access and inclusion are currently understood and approached in research, policy and practice. 

The project was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, from 2016-2018. Using an in-depth, collaborative research approach, it aimed to explore how people with sight impairment describe and experience a sense of wellbeing (or otherwise) with diverse types of nature through the life course. 

What ‘nature’ is and what it means to people can vary according to the environments we grow up in, those we experience (or are excluded from) over time, and with the many stories that circulate about nature within different societies and across generations. 

Since the 2003 Diversity Review, there has been growing momentum to nurture nature that is ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ to everyone. In 2018, the UK Government published its 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, ‘A Green Future’. This plan explicitly calls for policies that ‘balance the needs of a growing, vibrant society with the ability to access green space’. 

Despite such commitments, there remain stark inequalities – particularly along lines of disability, race, ethnicity and income – in who can shape, access and experience nature in its varied forms. Perhaps more critical attention is needed to whose versions of nature are prioritised in current access initiatives, in the name of what forms of nature connection?

Progress has been made in identifying groups who are typically less likely to engage with nature, for example through nationwide surveys, such as Natural England’s ‘People and Nature’ survey. Yet, these surveys tend to operationalise socio-demographic ‘differences’ as static variables to be ‘controlled’ or ‘adjusted for’, without necessarily exploring why or how inequalities in access have developed over time.

Valuable guidance exists for those keen to enhance nature access amongst varied groups. For example, the fantastic Sensory Trust has developed the widely used ‘Access Chain’ tool. This tool demonstrates opportunities for ensuring nature access plans relate to all parts of a visitor experience; from the moment someone decides to visit, to their journey to a site, their experiences in situ and their return home. 

Despite a range of innovative nature encounters being supported through such awareness, many so-called ‘accessible’ nature experiences continue to segregate on the basis of perceived difference rather than fostering genuine social inclusion. 

This tendency may reflect a failure to fully understand varied ways of sensing and making sense of nature, or to employ a diverse workforce within the sectors involved in ‘curating’ nature experiences; for example, in landscape architecture, nature conservation, access, management and interpretation roles. Indeed, how can people design for, manage or interpret nature experiences that they may not even be aware of? 

It may also be a product of longstanding nature exclusion, intentional or otherwise. For example, there is growing concern about the imposition of ‘Green LULUs’, Green Locally Unwanted Land Uses, whereby planners do not engage with existing land use conflicts or the needs of historically marginalised communities. These interventions can fail to address histories of neglect or exclusion – or support meaningful participation in local land use decision-making – amongst underheard community members. 

In our work during and since the ‘Sensing Nature’ project, we have tried to encourage a shift in people’s awareness of and approaches to disability and ‘difference’ in relation to nature access and experience; moving away from framing disability as an ‘access need’, and recognising it instead as a potential opportunity for creativity and shared learning. 

Through nurturing a more diverse workforce and volunteer base, perhaps the nature sector could acknowledge past erasures and better harness the valuable knowledges that different people can contribute to nature conservation, management, interpretation and visitor experience roles? Perhaps we could better work together to transform the sector, to make the unseen or rarely felt qualities of nature encounter more compelling across varied backgrounds, histories and life circumstances?

If you would like to read more about the Sensing Nature project or the initiatives we have been working on since, do visit the project ‘News’ pages or feel free to get in touch via email (via Sarah.Bell@exeter.ac.uk). 

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