New and novel research is ever adding to our understanding of the benefits of human’s relationship with nature. There is a comprehensive understanding of the material benefits from nature such as clean water, timber, and agriculture. More recent research has captured the impact of the non-material benefits offered by nature. These services include education, social connection, aesthetic, and spiritual value. Known as cultural ecosystem services, graduate student Lam Huynh in Sustainability Scienceat the University of Tokyo has undertaken a review of the research literature in this area.
Huynh and the team found that research into cultural ecosystems contains many different metrics and approaches as the subject focus is often intangible, subjective and socially constructed. Many of the benefits such as social and spiritual values are dependant on human perception. The review identified pathways between the interactions (for example a visit to a forest) and the outcome (improved wellbeing through a sense of calm). The mechanisms and pathways behind cultural ecosystem services interact with each other in complex ways. For example, the cognitive feeling behind the sense of calm when walking through a forest could be linked to emotional and spiritual experience as well as a physical reduction in heart rate. Four channels of interaction are outlined in Huynh et al.’s article – form, cultural practices, intellectual practices and spiritual practices. These are explained as follows:
“Form essentially denotes interactions with nature through the physical and tangible aspects of ecosystems. Cultural practices denote the interactions with nature that provide an opportunity for playing and exercising, creating and expressing, producing and caring, and gathering and consuming natural products. Intellectual practices denote the interactions with nature that provide an environment for learning and gaining new knowledge. Spiritual practices denote the interactions with nature that provide an opportunity for spiritual and religious activities.” – Huynh et al. 2022
What is important to acknowledge in parallel to these positive channels is the counter practice where some people have a limited understanding of nature and may experience a sense of being overwhelmed or alienated. Which in turn, limits a person’s opportunity to access the health and wellbeing benefits of nature. This is where the role of landscape planners, urban design and urban green spaces become vital. The role of urban green spaces in introducing children to nature as well as opportunity to connect with natural environments is pivotal in mediating negative reaction to nature.
Overall, this research provides an overview to understanding the complex processes behind gaining cultural benefits from nature. It allows researchers to identify where knowledge and evidence is absent and for practitioners to apply the identified pathways in nature based intervention design.