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In Crisis, Do We Turn To Nature?

Investigating our need for nature during the covid-19 pandemic in Aotearoa

By R.B. MacKinnon and M. Pedersen Zari

It seems an ordinary scene: a sunny day in the park, dogs bounding across the grass; parents chasing after energetic children; lovers on picnic blankets. However, with the pressing reality of the covid-19 pandemic, things are far from ordinary. Here, we must still remain spaced apart, and we should really be at home, ‘staying safe, saving lives’ as the Prime Minister has urged. Why then did we want to go to park? What brought us there?

These questions sparked a joint research project during lockdown levels 4 and 3. As a visiting researcher from the Netherlands, under 'lockdown' and far from home, I set out to investigate with colleagues from Victoria University of Wellington's School of Architecture. Our fieldwork had to be creative and safe for both participants and researcher. What ensued was an interactive, yet non-contact installation at Tanera Park in Aro Valley in Wellington. Visitors to the park were asked why they were there via a sign. Accompanying this question, was a pile of stones and five jars, each labelled with a reason people may have for visiting the park. Passersby dropped a stone into the jar that best described their reason for visiting the park on that day. On a daily basis, the stones were safely removed and counted.

The subjectivity of the park experience meant that there could many reasons for visiting. To ground and standardise the research, the jars were labelled using the categories of cultural ecosystem services as outlined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. These are the benefits that humans derive from ecosystems, and specifically those of a non-material nature. The labels were: beauty, inspiration, recreation, education and mental wellbeing. After one week of stone collecting during level 4, it became clear that Tanera Park provided much more than a grassy patch to release dogs onto. Over the first week, not one jar was left empty, and the jar labelled ‘mental wellbeing’ frequently held the most stones and at times, even a flower or two.

This supports the underlying hypothesis that perhaps we need nature now more than we did before. This stems from the theory of 'urgent biophilia'. Biophilia is humankind’s innate biological connection with nature. It is the reason we are captivated by expansive mountain ranges, majestic waterfalls or even a small garden. This contact with nature has proven to aid in healing, and to increase concentration, creativity and overall wellbeing2. Urgent biophilia is a theory suggesting that humans seek out contact with nature to increase psychological resilience during crisis. It implies that we turn to nature to actively aid in our own healing and restoration during situations of vulnerability.

Perhaps the jar installation is hinting that this may be the case in Aro Valley too. The pandemic and associated lockdown has forced many into situations of discomfort, stress, loss and uncertainty. We undoubtedly try a number of strategies to alleviate these feelings. The small-scale interaction with the Aro Valley community, suggests that getting into nature and visiting the park is potentially one of them. This has important implications for urban design and planning as we move into a state of the 'new normal'.

To further investigate this phenomenon of urgent biophilia and strengthen the findings, the installation was updated in various ways to not only deepen the research, but hopefully encourage visitors to pause and consider the value of their time in the park and their relationship with nature they find there. We will continue working on this research for some time and will run surveys in the coming weeks to delve into this even further. This compliments parallel research also currently taking place at the Victoria University's Wellington School of Architecture relating to the experience of lockdown and how important outdoor spaces are for our health and wellbeing. The aim is to explore the different types of outdoor spaces that New Zealanders could access during lockdown and what sort of physical activities were practiced. It investigates also how outdoor spaces affect our emotional response and how such spaces and associated activities can better assist us in coping with lockdown (link to survey here: http://vuw.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3IDjIi1Tyvbp6fz).

For more details please contact Dr Pedersen Zari on maibritt.pedersen@vuw.ac.nz or Dr Bruno Marques on Bruno.marques@vuw.ac.nz.

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