How lockdown has changed our relationship with nature

Morag MacGregor, a researcher at the School of Water, Energy and Environment at Cranfield University writes for Environment Journal about how lockdown has changed people’s relationship with the natural world and the places that they live. 

I live on the edge of the city centre in Sheffield. When I used to go running there’d be barely anyone around – the woods and fields were there but not seen as being really worth visiting. Now the same pathways are busy every day with people wanting to get out, finding an escape in the green spaces around them.

Something important has been happening during the lockdown period in our relationships with local landscapes. When the full range of impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the UK population – our physical and mental wellbeing – is better understood, it will be no surprise to find that people and communities with the luxury of better access to green spaces, to landscapes that work for recreation, have been better equipped to deal with the crisis.

Landscapes are valued, at the most functional level, for providing air and water, the soil for agriculture, the land for development and living and working in.

Then there are those areas generally recognised or officially designated as being areas of particular beauty. In this way, landscapes tend to be siloed. They do one thing or another.

But as the pandemic has demonstrated so vividly, people need their landscapes for more than their designated purposes. It’s in our relationship with our natural surroundings that we create a sense of place, of belonging, of identity – in ways that staying inside with Zoom and digital streaming services can’t ever replace.

Natural landscapes open up human connections with the world and an all-important bedrock of reality.

This is why we need to be thinking in terms of resilience: making sure there’s a recognition of a need for balance in what all of our landscapes provide for the people living alongside them.

A resilient landscape is one that can provide diversity in its range of benefits, that has reserves of natural capital in a good condition, can be adaptable and flexible: able to change but keeping the core of an original character and qualities; not fixed or rigid in terms of function.

Keeping to principles of conservation and protecting designated areas of specific interest doesn’t provide resilience. A particular river network might provide good conditions for birds to breed, for example, because the water levels there are right.

But if – and maybe just when – those water levels change for whatever reason, then the situation changes and the birds move on.

Pressures for change will always be there, some controllable to an extent (agriculture, urbanisation, technologies) and some less so (long-term trends for climate change).

So we need flexibility. And rather than only conserving the obvious landscapes, put investment and energy into what can be enhanced and transformed, the hinterlands that may have been written off: the landscapes scarred by old industries, the ex-mining village, the motorway edges.

In terms of the public imagination, however, the idea of the ‘green belt’ continues to have a stronghold, even if there is no actual green belt where they live or has been eroded by development with a strong economic case behind it: a principle of rigid protection rather than flexible enhancement.

The idea of landscape resilience is on the agenda for Natural England, for discussions over how landscapes should be assessed.

In such a subjective area as landscapes there will always be clashes of ideas and priorities, a question of degrees of services: should a region just be left to agriculture, or if it is allowed to be turned into a wetland, what level of benefits would there be to local ecology and for recreation?

Introducing the concept of landscape resilience will be critical to shifting the basis of decision-making in development and regeneration policies and funding.

Genuine resilience can’t be brought about through silos, it’s all about understanding the big picture: how everything about our landscapes and what we get from them is connected and interdependent.

We need to think in terms of securing all five ‘capitals’ which make up our socio-ecological system: our natural capital (as the basis of all life), human capital (skills and aptitudes), social capital (institutions and communities); built capital (everything from our cities to manufactured goods), and financial capital (the means of transferring resources between capitals).

Because what would be the good of a new Eden, a healthy and immaculate natural environment, if all the work involved can be broken by the economic crisis, by climate change, by social collapse?

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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