Life as a modern student seems to entail being connected twenty-four seven, an idea underscored every time the internet goes down, or you forget your laptop charger. But although we are ever more connected – to each other, to the wider world – through technology, it is feared that we are losing our fundamental connections with nature.
There have been emergent concerns that increasingly greater numbers of us are at risk from ‘nature deficit disorder’. The term, coined by author Richard Louv in his 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods, refers to the growing trend for children to be out of touch with the natural world. Although the concept originally applied to children and looked at the influence of nature on the formative stages of our lives, Louv was quick to link the theory to the adult world, expanding his ideas in a later book (The Nature Principle, 2012).
Louv essentially proposes that our current lifestyles are leading to our estrangement from nature, through a variety of factors; amongst other factors this may include increasing technology use, more sedentary lifestyles, and urbanisation. These developments can be seen to have a disproportionate impact when applied to childrens’ lives, hence Louv’s call for greater promotion of experiences of nature for the young. But as Jon Henley reports in an interview with the author, it is ‘not, Louv stresses, a “known medical condition”, more a “disorder of society”’ (Jon Henley, The Guardian).
In terms of university lifestyles however, Durham may be regarded as a singular university town; it affords no lack of natural spaces and landscapes. Although affectionately known as the ‘Bubble’, Durham is surrounded by rolling countryside, whilst the town centre is bounded by tree-lined views of the River Wear. But it is worth considering the lifestyles within other universities and indeed within the broader working community. Louv’s project, the ‘Children and Nature Network’ proposes that children are beginning to lack ‘Vitamin N’ (i.e. ‘Nature’); this idea is arguably as applicable to modern work places, that seem increasingly city-based. But movements to counter this trend can be seen in the growing efforts of city employers to provide enriching workspaces (The Guardian), accompanied by greater innovation in office design. The inclination to incorporate more natural space into public areas shapes a twofold benefit; public health and that of the broader environment are mutually improved. The impact of offices and public space design may seem trivial or as a corporate afterthought, but the ‘greening’ of such spaces is a step forward for people and the planet.
Even students who are actively involved with conservation or environmental projects may feel out of contact with nature at times, given the stressful workloads and commitments synonymous with the contemporary student experience. Henley comments that Louv notices the lack of time for nature in children’s lives: ‘children’s time is so much more pressured these days. All those improving after-school activities, plus the very modern notion that a kid’s time must be put to constructive use – no room for just hanging out in the woods.’ (Henley, The Guardian) However, I think it is arguable that this notion parallels approaches to student life; the pressure to acquire experience that may be relevant to the competitive working world perhaps endangers our experience of the natural world. Unless you are working towards a career in the environmental sector it might seem possible to dismiss nature as irrelevant or as a luxury within a high pressure schedule of (in Louv’s words) ‘improving’ activities. But the improvements that the environment can make to ‘wellbeing’ should perhaps not be ignored. The Wildlife Trust’s ‘Nature and Wellbeing Act’ in partnership with other conservation charities, highlights the mutual benefits that can be brought about by interaction with nature – the natural environment can be better protected and people can benefit from their experience of protecting it. The Trust reported that ‘[o]ver 90% of people recently surveyed agreed that our wellbeing and quality of life is based on nature and biodiversity.’
Helen Briggs reports on the views of Dr Ross Cameron, of the University of Sheffield, with regards to landscape and wellbeing: ‘basically any interaction with nature/green space seems to have some potential. I would argue that as you increase the scale and quality of it, the benefits also increase.’ (BBC News) So although in Durham I think that we are privileged with ready natural spaces such as the riverside walks, Botanic Gardens, and surrounding countryside, the integration of nature into public spaces in the wider world should be a focus for more than environmentalists.