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New book argues for more 'neighbourhood nature'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

In a new book examining the link between nature and wellbeing, environmental historian Dr Catherine Knight explores the benefits of nature experienced by everyday New Zealanders, and argues for more nature in the places where most New Zealanders live - our towns and cities.

Amidst our busy, technology-oriented lives, we have never been more aware of the benefit of being out in nature. As a new book by environmental historian and award-winning author Dr Catherine Knight explains, there are now countless scientific studies linking time spent in nature or urban green space to a range of wellbeing benefits: lower levels of stress, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved cognition in children with attention deficits and individuals with depression. It is even linked to a boost in ‘natural killer cells’, a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in fighting infections and tumours.

But how much quality time does the ‘average’ New Zealander spend enjoying the outdoors? While our national parks are places of spectacular wilderness, for many of us, these places are out of reach. In Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand: Exploring the connection, Knight argues for the restoration of ‘neighbourhood nature’ - places that all New Zealanders can freely access, irrespective of their social or economic situation. New Zealand’s experience of the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how important these local oases of nature are - and how vital they are to our wellbeing.

For many New Zealanders, 2020 has been a tumultuous and difficult year. But for those of us fortunate to retain some stability in our lives, lockdown became an opportunity to spend time with family, to avoid long hours commuting on congested roads and work from home, to stay local and to enjoy neighbourhood nature. During April this year, there was an upsurge in citizen science apps such as iNaturalist, indicating that people were getting out into nature in their neighbourhoods.

The lockdown experience also led many of us to realise how important our neighbourhood green spaces are - for walking, cycling, or just getting some fresh, tree-filtered air. But it also accentuated inequities in our society. For those of us who live in the country or in the ‘leafy suburbs’, having more time to spend in local parks or walking along a river or coastal walkway would have felt more like a gift than an imposition. But for those living in neighbourhoods with few places to enjoy nature or those that did not have the luxury of working from home due to their jobs or circumstances, connecting with nature may not have been a high priority during lockdown.

Our appreciation of nature at this time of crisis is not without irony, given that at the root of the pandemic is the unprecedented destruction of pristine forests, rapid urbanisation and population growth, bringing wildlife and human activities into constant and dangerous proximity and making wildlife-to-human transmission of new diseases increasingly likely. According to Livia Esterhazy, World Wildlife Fund New Zealand chief executive, Covid-19 has been a ‘really clear warning signal … [that] we have a world and an environment completely out of balance. The rise of pandemics is absolutely linked to the destruction and the loss of nature.’

In the wake of the crisis, calls have strengthened for us to rethink the way we live. To spend less time commuting into cities to work and spend our money and, instead, to live, work and play locally, enriching our local communities so that, in turn, they better support our needs. In Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand Knight argues that if being in nature is good for us (and her book provides a compelling case that it is), we need to create more natural spaces in the cities and towns in which most of us live.

Accompanied by stunning photography, this book tells the stories of a wide range of New Zealanders, who - either individually or through organised initiatives - have experienced the wellbeing benefits gained through connection with nature. Their stories are varied but each one is authentic, personal and moving. Drawing on the latest scientific research and through these personal stories, Knight challenges us to contemplate a more nature-rich future - as Knight puts it: ‘an Aotearoa New Zealand where every New Zealander can benefit from being in nature, any day of their life.’

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