We all know how good nature can make us feel. We have known it for millennia: the sound of the ocean, the scents of a forest, the way dappled sunlight dances through leaves. These things ease our stress and worry; they help us to relax and think more clearly.
The idea that humans possess a deep biological need to connect with nature has been called ‘Biophilia’, from the Greek, meaning ‘love of life and the living world’. American biologist, Edward O. Wilson, believed ‘our existence depends upon this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents’. We know this deep in our bones. Science knows it, too. We are hard-wired to affiliate with the natural world.
Yet, according to the United Nations Population Division, the number of us flocking to urban areas has grown exponentially, from just 751 million in 1950, to 4.2 billion in 2019. By 2050, it is estimated that a staggering 68 per cent of the world’s projected 9 billion inhabitants will live in cities. That’s right, we have officially become an urban species.
Cities are wonderful places – full of excitement, innovation, and energy. But living in a city can be stressful. And the more we live in them, the more stress we have; leading to increases in mental illness, addiction, loneliness, depression and panic attacks.
The good news is that while the global science community continues to illuminate the therapeutic benefits of nature on the brain, so too are organisations across the planet. Through conducting research and sharing information with governments, universities, corporations and businesses, new ideas are being implemented that encourage us to step out of the fast lane and reconnect with nature in a rapidly changing world.
Here are five countries leading the way:
It seems appropriate that Japan – home to the most densely populated city in the world – should kick off the list. The Japanese art of ‘shinrin-yoku’, which literally translates to ‘forest bathing’, was initially introduced as part of a public health programme in 1982, urging citizens to make use of the country’s 3,000 wooded miles for therapeutic purposes. Coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the prescription for shinrin-yoku is refreshingly simple: go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace.
Shinrin-yoku is now standard practice in Japan, with sixty-two forest bases and trails across the country – each with a particular healing feature. Experts in forest and health care are on hand at many of the bases to help you connect with nature through all five of your senses and to make the most of its restorative power.
In Sweden, which ranks consistently highly on the World Happiness Index, everyone has the legal right to walk, cycle, ride, ski and camp almost anywhere in nature. Known as Allemansrätten, or ‘everyman’s right’, this level of public access provides an opportunity to explore the many terrains this country’s diverse landscape has to offer.
Honouring this unique accolade, the Swedish tourism board has recently announced that it is working with Michelin-star chefs to transform the whole country into a do-it-yourself gourmet restaurant. Promoted as ‘The Edible Country’, seven large wooden tables have been spread across the land with ready-to-use meal kits and cooking utensils. Welcome to Sweden, now open for reservations.
A 2016 study by Natural England found that more than 10% of UK children had not set foot in a park, forest, or other natural environment over the previous 12 months. In an attempt to balance screen time and wild time, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs is calling upon individuals and businesses to join together in a ‘Year of Green Action’ (YoGA) – an ambitious drive to get people of all ages and backgrounds outdoors. Placing young people front and centre of YoGA, the scheme will allocate £10 million to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds gain better access to nature, with special grants awarded to projects that increase the number of school visits to local parks, wildlife sites, and national parks.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
In October 2013, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Parks Service gathered a group of practitioners to discuss the emerging trend of prescribing nature to prevent and treat chronic disease. Since that time, the National ParkRx community health initiative has given rise to more than 150 park-prescription programmes in America (complete with custom prescription slips), in states from Alabama to Wisconsin, through which people can reap the health benefits of being in nature – while learning to look after the countryside along the way.
Perhaps no one has embraced the medicalisation of nature with more enthusiasm than the South Koreans. The government has spent more than $14 million on a National Forest Therapy Centre, developed thirty-seven state-run recreational forests, and is committed to training a further five hundred forest-healing instructors. One of the most ambitious forest medicine programmes in the world, the National Forest Plan aims to create a ‘green welfare state, where forests bring happiness to everyone’, at every stage of life. Programs range from prenatal forest meditation, to woodcrafts for cancer patients. There is even a ‘Happy Train’ that delivers school bullies to a national forest for two days of camping, so they can learn to be nicer.
As our collective mass migration to the world’s cities continues to show no sign of waning, the steps being taken toward a future in balance should be celebrated widely. In an age when we’re anchored to stress, technology, and increasing exile from the natural world; it would benefit us all to look toward countries that embrace the notion of nature as a human right.
The breakthrough’s pioneered by these countries and others show how fringe ideas can be shunted into the mainstream for the overall betterment of the human experience. As we cement our departure from the ‘Garden of Eden’, more people must be included in the conversation until the wisdom that emerges becomes common knowledge among all members of the human tribe. In the words of Henry David Thoreau – ‘we can never have enough of nature’.