16 May 2011

Britain is suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder

It’s probably fair to say that most of us remember growing up and that some of our best memories are about the outdoors: playing with friends in the park; going for a walk with the family; climbing a tree or that feeling you get when you’re standing on top of a mountain. Remembering those experiences is not just sentimentalism for a time when we were young or had more freedom to explore. Those experiences and a continued relationship with nature were and are essential for our development and wellbeing.

As David Cameron recently wrote in an essay 'In praise of general well-being’: “Central to our wellbeing is environmental sustainability. I believe very strongly, that clean, green environment is absolutely pivotal to our quality of life. I am in no doubt how important it is that we pass this inheritance on to future generations”.(1)

There is an increasing basis of scientific evidence that shows the value of nature to enhance and improve our levels of wellbeing and happiness. This is not an argument about protecting and preserving the environment, but a framework of evidence which underlines how access to a rich natural environment improves the health and quality of our lives. The implications for policy are that bringing the provision of outdoor space for the enjoyment of everyone, should be at the heart of urban and rural planning, not be set aside in a box labelled "green issues". Bluntly, access to a high quality natural environment needs to be seen as a social and public health issue not an environmental issue.

Our grandparents roamed more freely as children than our parents did and our parents roamed more freely than us. The distance children stray from their homes has decreased by an astonishing 90% since the 1970s. One in five British children has never visited the countryside. A similar proportion has never climbed a tree. Half of all adults visit the natural environment less than once a week. We are a nation disengaging ourselves from one of our greatest assets.(2)

The overall British population is growing, and population densities are rising.(3) This is putting increasing pressure on local open spaces and the green belt under threat of development.(4) The corollary of spending less time outside is obviously that we are spending more time indoors – partly because of work, but more because of recreational activities such as playing video games and watching TV.(5)(6)(7) As a result less than a quarter of children visit a local green space on a weekly basis whereas half of their parents did when they were young.(8) This results in a disconnection from, and ignorance of, nature, such as was highlighted in a recent Farming Weekly survey which showed that 26% of under 30’s believe bacon comes from sheep!

As we spend less and less time out of doors, scientific understanding of its value to us grows more and more and is now known as Nature Deficit Disorder, a disconnection of our society from the natural environment which has impoverished the lives of people, many of which are already disproportionately impoverished by a deficit of other social and economic factors.(9) According to a recent report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment this is an issue of fairness.(10) Those in the lowest income quintile have five times less access to quality green space, where those in areas where the population is 40% or more black or ethnic minority, the figure is 11 times less.

The decreased time we spend in nature is likely to be a major contributory factor to the obesity epidemic, which, in 2006, affected 24% of the UK population and 16% of children.(11) The link lies in the fact that we are making exercise harder and less enjoyable for ourselves by mechanising and bringing it indoors: ‘green exercise’ has been shown to be easier and have greater effectiveness than indoor exercise.(12) Drop out rates for ‘health walks’ are lower than for people using gyms, because exercise becomes a secondary motivation after the enjoyment of nature.(13)

Time in nature has been linked to everything from the development of communities, to self-esteem among the elderly and disabled, to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.(14)(15) Research also shows the massive impact of nature on rates of crime and domestic violence.(16)

Nature Deficit Disorder is not just an individual problem but a societal disorder,which is reducing the overall wellbeing of this nation. Recent research by Essex University shows that as little as five minutes of "green" exercise can have a significant impact on self-esteem.(17) In a nation where one in four adults will experience clinical mental illness at some point in their lifetimes, at an annual cost in excess of £100bn, our withdrawal from nature makes no sense.(18)

In the current attempts to measure happiness by the government there is a major risk that nature and wellbeing will be under-represented because the science is so new. That would be a mistake as the initial findings are already convincing. Relatively little has been done to measure nature’s broader impact on subjective well-being, but a study commissioned by the National Trust indicates there is evidence here too: it found that Britain’s happiest people are more than twice as likely to have a strong personal connection to nature.(19)

We all have a responsibility for the collective wellbeing of this nation; we all need to collaborate to enable us to foster a happier and more inspired nation. It is essential that we are able to reconnect every member of society, to some level of physical and spiritual refreshment that can only be offered by being outdoors. That is why there needs to be a wellbeing indicator that measures access to a good quality natural environment. This in turn will help government, businesses and communities to ensure that everybody everywhere has the opportunity to reconnect and engage with nature, enjoy being outdoors and benefit from all it has to offer.

James Lloyd

James is a part-time Associate at cuttingthecarbon. He primarily works at the National Trust where he is Senior External Affairs Officer. James was previously an Adviser on Energy and Environmental Issues to the Liberal Democrats, Lead Consultant on Energy, Environment and Clean Technology at PoliticsDirect, and Head of Campaigns at People & Planet.


1) David Cameron in his essay ‘In praise of general well-being’, "Do Good Lives have to cost the Earth?", 2008
2) http://outdoornation.org.uk
3) The UK population rose almost 10% between 1980 and 2008, from 56m to over 61m - World Bank data. Approximately 80% of the population live in cities, with almost a third of the population living in areas with a density of over 4000 people per square kilometre http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_percentage_of_Urban_population_of_UK
4) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/5286180/Government-gives-green-light-to-green-belt-destruction.html
5) One in eight of the UK population works a 48 hour office-based week or more http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7116274.stm
6) Makers of computer and video games have “broken the old barrier of 30% of households owning a static console” - the video and computer game market grew 46.6% between 2002 and 2007 - Mintel, Video and Computer Games, Leisure Intelligence, August 2008
7) In 2005, the average Britain watched 157 minutes of television per day, compared to 10 minutes of sport or outdoor activity - ONS, http://www.statistics.gov.uk/STATBASE/Expodata/Spreadsheets/D9512.xls
8) http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/about_us/news/2009/020409.aspx
9) Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder
10) Community green: using local spaces to tackle inequality and improve health, DCMS CABE 2010, http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110118095356/ http:/www.cabe.org.uk/files/community-green-full-report.pdf
11) http://www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/opadjan08
12) People undertaking green exercise think they are using less energy than those exercising indoors, when they are actually using more http://www.greenexercise.org/Research_Findings.html
13) RSPB, Natural Health, 2007
14) Three out of four people feel less depressed, tense and angry after participating in outdoor exercise; two out of three experience an overall improvement in mood; and almost two out of three report improved self-esteem. http://www.greenexercise.org/Key_Findings.html
15) Children undertaking outdoor activities in nature appear to improve symptoms of ADHD by 30% compared to urban outdoor activities and 300% compared to the indoor environment - RSPB, Natural Thinking, 2007
16) Fifty percent less crime and domestic violence in families with views of increased vegetation in a poor housing estate compared to identical blocks with no vegetation - RSPB, Natural Thinking, 2007
17) A walk a day keeps the doctors at bay, 2010, Dr Jules Pretty and Dr Joanna Barton, Essex University http://www.essex.ac.uk/news/event.aspx?e_id=1588
18) Cost of mental ill health in England exceeds £100 billion, Oct 2010, Centre for mental health http://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/news/2010_cost_of_mental_ill_health.aspx
19) Four fifths of the happiest people in the UK said they have a strong connection with nature, compared with just 37% of the unhappiest. The TNS survey of 1,294 UK adults was commissioned as part of the National Trust's inquiry into public access and enjoyment of the outdoors. The survey took placed on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 December 2010. 80% of the happiest people in the UK said they have a strong connection with nature, compared with just 37% of the unhappiest