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Citizen science helps nurture our health through nature

University of South Australia Media Release

From lifting our moods, to boosting our immune systems, the intrinsic health benefits of being in nature are well known. But as urbanisation continues to encroach on green spaces, finding ways to connect with natural environments is becoming more challenging.

Now, University of South Australia (UniSA) researchers are urging governments to consider nature-based citizen science as part of their public health policies in an effort improve the health and wellbeing of people living in urban areas.

By 2050, the United Nations estimates that 88 per cent of the population will be living in urban areas.

Given such mass urbanisation, UniSA’s Professor Craig Williams says it’s more important than ever to maintain a connection with natural environments.

“Whether you’re watering the garden, taking a stroll around the block, or simply watching the world go by, getting out into nature is good for your health,” Prof Williams says.

“Natural environments can enhance human performance, improve success at work (or school) and are known to provide significant mental, emotional, and physical health benefits.

“Conversely, urbanisation can negatively affect human health by increasing the prevalence of allergic, autoimmune, inflammatory, and infectious diseases, with some of these factors contributing to rise in cancers, depression and cardiovascular disease.

“As cities grow, fewer people have access to natural environments, which is part of the reason urban living can be bad for your health.

“Citizen science can change this. Nature-based citizen science projects can motivate people to engage with natural environments. And if they can be orchestrated, organised, and promoted in cities – particularly as part of a public health policy – then we have the potential to improve people’s health through that mechanism.”

Prof Williams says citizen science can also alleviate stress and isolation.

“In as little as 15 minutes in a natural environment, a person can experience lower stress levels as measured by blood pressure, cortisol levels and pulse rate,” Prof Williams says.

“In Australia, the outdoors remains one of the few places where people can safely get together despite the persistent risk of COVID-19.

“Being out and about in nature – whether in person, or by electronic means (as are many of our projects), is a great way to help people stay connected, while also providing them with a purpose, helping them feel like they’re contributing to something, and being part of a community.

“At the same time, they’re discovering great places to go in their city, and hopefully improving their wellbeing by doing so.”

The full paper is available here.

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4 comments

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  1. Consume Less

    Fully agree, getting out in nature is the absolute best. I have been back on my bicycle for over a year now and my fitness levels have improved heaps, ie riding up hills is no longer hard, but a joy with the bonus of endorphins. There are so many excellent bike tracks around Adelaide and some are are so well vegetated there are no buildings in sight. I now look at Adelaide through the eyes of a cyclist more than through the eyes of a car driver. I did read that Melbourne is most bike friendly city in Australia, so hope to check that out for myself.

  2. wam

    UniSA does produce lots of good stuff like this and has a first class world recognition for research and this is no exception.
    So few children have been shown the wonders of observing nature by parents that conservation is reliant on government. So few politician have been shown the wonders of nature that conservation is of secondary importance and left to last minute protest.
    4 families had a hidden camping spot. Little shallow creek, fed by a spring with shady trees. Standard fare was the 4 women sitting on chairs in the creek and 3 men drinking, playing cards and ‘potting’. I looked after the kids in the sandy shallows. It was so easy to show them the clouds, the trees, the leaves, the fish, the flowing water and sand washing through fingers and toes but no follow up from the 7.
    All teaching degrees should have at least a semester course on the importance of natural surroundings, including inside and outside the home, local, state and Australian bush, flora and fauna.
    Such an education course would be classified as left wing indoctrination making it unlikely to even be considered by universities. Best leave it to Attenborough and luck?

  3. Canguro

    I grew up in the country and it was the possibility of escape into the bush that made an utterly dysfunctional domestic environment somewhat tolerable – the readily available contact with the natural world to a limited extent offset the madness of home base. Further reinforced during high school years when a trio of teachers formed a field naturalists club and taught us kids to identify and appreciate the world of plants & animals, birds, reptiles, habitat, complexity & interrelationships.

    So yes, a relationship with the natural world is extremely important for health and well-being. After all, we were all dwellers within the landscape for thousands of years prior to the advent of agriculture and, eventually, industrialisation and citified communities. And I’d bet London to a brick that there is (prior to modern intervention) little or no instance of psychological disturbance or neurosis within traditional communities.

    An observation… working in South Korea some years ago, I was stunned to hear a student tell me that he’d never touched a tree in his life.. he was about twelve years old. He’d spent his childhood staring at a screen, as do most of his country’s kids. Such a lack of sensate awareness of the natural world cannot be a good thing.

    We are extremely fortunate in this country that our cities and rural towns provide easy access to the countryside and to urban parks & gardens.

  4. corvusboreus

    Canguro,
    I live coastal semi-rural.

    Latish last year I went along for a few unpleasant ‘bushwalks’ into an area of logged depredation that had occured in remnant pockets of forest that had escaped surrounding devastation in preceding bushfires.

    We documented numerous legislative breaches including felling of verboten species, harvesting above diameter limit, and incursions into wetlands and through watercourses.

    Submitted documentation resulted not only in the termination of existing subcontracts, but also brought about a temporary suspension in general harvesting operations within that particular designated coupe.

    Done right, citizen science can help stop mountains from being moved.

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