There is a wealth of information in the medical world detailing the beneficial health outcomes of nature, including helping people cope with depression and easing anxiety and stress. However, with climate change an ever-growing issue, the healing power of nature could be threatened.
A master’s thesis study by former Wilfrid Laurier student Catherine Reining detailed how the beneficial health outcomes of nature only go so far when the quality of nature is at a perceived acceptable level.
Through surveys conducted at Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario, Reining found that while the type of environment we are in won’t affect nature’s benefit to our health, our perception of its integrity will. For example, if someone walks into a park and sees something that affects the way they value the park’s naturalness, like garbage strewn around the park, it will lessen the beneficial health outcomes that would have come from visiting the park.
The study and its results
In 2019, Reining was a student at Wilfrid Laurier University working towards a Master of Environmental Science degree. Today she is managing a pan-Canadian project out of Western University called ParkSeek, which is looking to better understand the accessibility and quality dimensions of parks across Canada.
Reinig’s final work as a student at the university was her research on environmental integrity. Her thesis shed light on the ways the loss of natural park space affects individuals.
For her thesis, Reining performed a study on how perceived ecological integrity affected a person’s well-being.
Reining wanted to determine what type of environments have more positive health outcomes. But more importantly, how a person’s perception of the environment will contribute to those health outcomes.
Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario was the site of the study. Utilizing a place-based case study design, it determined the influence of multiple environments in protected areas and relied on participant self-reporting, primarily through surveys.
The study consisted of 467 responses. Participants answered surveys over 18 days in 14 different survey sites spread across the park.
Survey stations were set up in various types of environments within Pinery. Locations ranged from less developed natural areas to places with visible human impact and man-made structures.
The main bulk of questions centered on perceived ecological integrity. Ecological integrity is a measurement of an environment that determines whether it has retained most of the original elements that made up the location. If a location has lost most of the animals that were once present or is polluted with garbage left by humans, its integrity has been compromised.
In general, if it is easy to see the impact of humans on an environmental space then that qualifies as a loss of environmental integrity.
Health care professionals are beginning to recognize the importance of nature to health outcomes
The parts that contribute to environmental integrity are biodiversity and naturalness. Biodiversity is the number of unique animal and plant species within an area, while naturalness is how close a location is to its original state. A city has no naturalness, while a national park would have retained some of its naturalness.
Results showed that no matter the age, race, or socio-economic background, being outdoors has a positive association with mental well-being.
The type of environment didn’t matter that much either. A forest or a riverside didn’t have drastic differences in health outcomes.
What did matter was how the participant perceived and looked upon the place they were in. Surveys showed that respondents would receive fewer health benefits if they considered an area less natural and had lower ecological integrity.
Possible conclusions and solutions
The study’s results on the perceptions of integrity emphasizes the pressure to keep environments stable and natural. For Reining, it is another reason to protect the spaces we have.
There are many factors unique to each park that will affect its integrity. Reining points out that COVID has added pressure on environments with people seeking an escape from pandemic boredom. There is a fine line to walk between making use of green spaces and protecting them.
“The pandemic has amped up the narrative of the benefits of being out in nature, and people are understanding it now. It’s the only place people have been able to go. Whether just in the local park or trying your hand at camping,” Reining said.
“It is also on the visitor to use the environment in a responsible way that allows them to receive the benefit and the joys of going out into nature but not harming it. We want to make sure we have it for a long time.”
To preserve ecological integrity or at least the perception of it, Reining said a lot needs to be done in the ever-changing age of climate catastrophes.
A lot of it has to do with education. Reining points out that parks need points of contact to educate people about staying on trails and what destructive behaviour looks like.
Looking further afield to less popular destinations is also a way to maintain ecological integrity. For Alberta that might mean looking to destinations other than Banff or Kananaskis.
“The Algonquins and Banffs of the world see a lot of pressure. There may be places nearby that are just as beautiful. But a lot needs to be done at a lot of different levels. Government policy, to protect existing spaces, but also being proactive by adding land to protected areas,” Reining said.
One example Reining provided was from Pinery Provincial Park. The park has over 1,000 campsites that see over 600,000 visitors a year, but park officials will periodically close certain campsites to allow nature to take back the area. These locations rotate year over year, allowing people to enjoy the park while nature takes its course.
However, Reining said that solutions like this aren’t one-size-fits-all.
Alberta and the Rockies are in a unique situation being the most popular national parks in the country. The policy implementation needed to lessen environmental impacts will be different, as researcher Christopher Lemieux explains.
Christopher Lemieux is a professor in the same department that Reining graduated from and is the Research Chair in Environmental Geography at Wilfrid Laurier University. He has worked on numerous studies detailing nature’s relation to human mental and physical well-being, examining aspects of the topic that are often overlooked.
Lemieux said that 40 per cent of all visitors to Canada’s national parks go to the parks of the Rocky Mountains, Banff, Yoho, and Jasper, to name a few. There were 3.2 million visitors to Banff despite no international travel in 2020. That is a huge challenge to solve from an ecological level.
“On the one hand, the mountain parks are playing such an important role providing visitors access to health benefits, but on the other, there are a whole host of problems and effects on ecological integrity that have been documented in the region for decades,” Lemieux said.
“Parks Canada and other agencies in the region are working to calm things down a bit. For example, advertising focused on summer visitation has been reduced with the goal of spreading out visitation into the quieter seasons.”
But Lemieux points out how institutions will funnel people into certain time frames, such as summer when schools are out. This will make the ecological efforts difficult.
The effect worsening ecological integrity will have on people
As environments degrade, concerns grow for at-risk groups who may rely on the outdoors for therapy.
Sonya Jakubec is a professor at Mount Royal University with the faculty of nursing. Most of her work has focused on how palliative care patients and people with disabilities connect to and benefit from nature.
Jakubec said that nature therapy practices can be an invaluable addition to the end-of-life care plan, greatly reducing stress levels and easing the symptoms of depression.
No matter the weather or who they are with, Jakubec’s studies found decreased stress and anxiety among people with disabilities and those in palliative care.
With the worsening climate, ecological integrity is becoming more and more fragile. Jakubec said it will certainly impact vulnerable groups who could benefit from the outdoors.
“Climate change is lowering the quality of our outdoor environments. To some degree, the safety even. Think back to last summer and the heat dome which caused so many wildfires. The smoke made it dangerous to go outside when the inside was also dangerous,” Jakubec said.
“We also see that mental wellbeing is connected to eco-anxiety or ecological distress that happens as a result of climate change. This isn’t an extractive relationship like taking a pill. This is about a relationship to parks and the environment.”
A similarity to Reining’s research was that the type of environment didn’t necessarily matter. Outdoor therapy and prescriptions shouldn’t all be for the deep wilderness. A city park or the backyard is just as viable depending on the person. A city park doesn’t necessarily have no ecological integrity. Factors like cleanliness and the animals within will determine our perceptions.
Reining’s work with ParkSeek is continuing the path of her initial thesis research, determining who uses parks and who doesn’t. All trying to find the constraints that stop people from making use of protected spaces for recreation, and what health benefits they may be missing out on.
Once all essential data is gathered, Reining said the goal is to leverage that for health promotion and benefits. There is hope that through this type of promotion, awareness of the fragility of the environment will continue to grow.