Demonstrating the benefits of nature-based education for resilient cities

In a recently publicly published book chapter, Jean-Pierre Schweitzer and IEEP’s Susanna Gionfra brought together evidence of how nature-based education, utilizing green infrastructure and protected areas, presents an opportunity to mitigate the impacts of environmental and socio-economic challenges faced by urban citizens.

Living in cities offers a wide range of opportunities and services to people while also presenting numerous negative pressures on well-being, such as air pollution, inequalities and social unrest.

Research is increasingly emphasising the role that nature can play in addressing these challenges in a world that is becoming profoundly urbanised. Despite the benefits that nature offers, access to nature is not an obvious feature in many urban settlements. However, society is highly dependent on nature for access to a range of ecosystem services. In a world witnessing a trend in population growth and with society’s ecological footprint exceeding the planet’s bio-capacity, there is an urgent need for sustainable urban environments. Cities can play a crucial role in driving environmental change at the global level.

The integration of nature in education is an area which is gaining increasing attention and which is of particular relevance to SDG 4.7. For these reasons, nature-based education represents a powerful tool to deliver this goal through the multiple positive effects that nature can have on learning, as well as through the benefits that outdoor education can offer on the social, economic and environmental aspects of urban life.

Exposure to nature has been shown to deliver a range of mental, physical and health benefits for people of all ages.

The presence of natural sites in working and living environments can considerably increase concentration, improve mental health and stimulate physical activity, with obvious associated health benefits. An increasing number of activities, whether education- or sport-based, are carried out in protected areas, now often considered ‘health hubs’, due to the physical health improvements associated to the exposure to natural environments. In the context of mental health, another observed feature of proximity to nature is stress release. Findings linked to such effects have given rise to various nature-based rehabilitation centres such as the Swedish Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden, where rehabilitation practices are carried out in selected gardens and led by personnel with nature-related competences.

In addition to these multiple broad health benefits, spending time in nature has been found to improve childhood development.

Nature has been shown to increase concentration levels in children as well as significantly improve self-esteem and emotion regulation, resulting in improved social behaviour. The recognition of such positive implications of nature on children’s development has promoted the integration of nature in education systems. While some issues have been linked to lack of supervision in outdoor environments, these can be easily overcome (e.g. through the introduction of supervised outdoor activities into school systems).

For instance, in Finland the concept of nature-based education is already widely accepted and adopted, as exemplified by the many forest Kindergartens in the country. Furthermore, the costs of neglecting access to nature are also widely acknowledged, as often referred to through the term “nature deficit disorder”, including higher physical and emotional illness, concentration difficulties and diminished use of the senses.  In general, humans have been observed to have a biological need to connect with nature, something which is defined with the term ‘biophilia’. It is argued that such nature connectedness can promote environmental stewardship, through improvements in eco-literacy and children’s understanding of environmental issues, and lacking such connection can undermine conservation efforts and therefore sustainability.

By delivering benefits to health, the integration of nature in urban environments can also have important economic implications.

Access to nature reduces demands on healthcare systems, providing a solution to shrinking public health care budgets as well as calls for more preventive public health action. Nature can offer opportunities for employment, volunteering and skills development. Nature-based jobs allow individuals to reap a double benefit of being economically active and accessing the positive effects of being in contact with nature.

In this context, cities can provide important tools to promote the integration of nature and green infrastructure through city plans and strategies for urban development.

City-level measurements and indicators are gaining increasing attention, as well as the role that data from cities can play in improving tools to monitor progress, for instance towards the achievement of the SDGs.  By integrating a social and environmental dimension to urban development, in addition to the conventionally considered economic dimension, measures and indicators of this kind can incentivise cities to improve access to nature, promote nature-based activities and feedback into urban plans.

Drawing on European research, we have identified that nature can bring about individual, community and planetary level solutions, which can be mutually reinforcing and contribute to making cities more sustainable and resilient. In the context of education, nature has long been undervalued, which has made progress in nature-based education somewhat limited. However, the integration of nature in education systems does not require drastic changes but could be complementary to conventional education systems. Nature-based education presents opportunities to tackle the challenges faced by urban populations and should play an increasingly central role in the ambitions of cities in Europe and beyond.

For a detailed analysis of the above insights on the underutilised role of nature in supporting the education of urban populations please see the chapter by Jean-Pierre Schweitzer and IEEP’s Susanna Gionfra in the book, Lifelong Learning and Education in Healthy and Sustainable Cities, edited by Azeiteiro, U., Akerman, M., Leal Filho, W., Setti, A.F.F., and Brandli, L.L.. The chapter highlights empirical evidence on nature-based solution, the multiple benefits of nature and urban GI, drawing on evidence gathered in a yearlong project for the European Commission.