By Russell Hitchings, University College London.
In the UK in the last eighteen months, many people have been forced to re-evaluate their relationship with nearby spaces of living greenery. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Britons were allowed to go into local parks for only limited periods. For some of us, that transformed these spaces from places that might otherwise unthinkingly be marched through into a cherished change from the drudgery of life indoors. Even now, with travel restrictions still in place, many Britons are continuing to re-evaluate the beauty and benefits of local places that, for a range of interesting reasons, were previously relatively unloved.
The pandemic has highlighted very many things. But one of them is the significance of the processes on which my research has partly centred for several years – how it can be easy to overlook greenspace resources in everyday life. I looked at this because, as many studies have shown, spending time in the company of plants and trees can be good for people. As psychologists have revealed in their scientific studies, doing so can result in effects that range from reduced blood pressure to greater self-esteem. It can also encourage us to care for the wider environment when the planet could do with that care now more than ever.
Their results provide valuable evidence for those who want to protect and improve the greenspaces scattered across the cities in which people are increasingly found. But the core argument to some of my work is that a focus on provision gives us only one part of the puzzle. If we want to ensure people continue to benefit from greenspace experiences, we also need to consider the effects of the changing ways in which societies commonly live. I’ve argued this partly because one thing that geographers like me, who are often particularly interested in the effects of context, are quite good at doing is looking at how things work out for different social groups. It was with this in mind, that I set to explore the reasons why people might sometimes recoil from these spaces, even though they knew going there might be good for them were they only to put existing preoccupations to one side.
As I discuss in my new book ‘The unsettling Outdoors: environmental estrangement in everyday life’, an important part of that process relates to how people can be recruited into patterns of living that can effectively separate them from this greenery. With that in mind, my idea is that, if we want to think creatively about how urban societies that are often increasingly busy and stressed can continue to benefit from greenspaces, we can learn from how exactly this happens. People are malleable creatures after all. We are not always thinking about what we want to do next or whether we want to go outside to benefit from being there. Quite commonly we are often going with the flow of the situation and the circumstances instead. For me, this meant taking some steps away from the greenery focus to look at trends in how we work, how we wash, how we shop, and where we exercise.
Sometimes with colleagues, I’ve squatted down in fields in order to speak with a stranger who was, at the time, coming to terms with primitive festival conditions; I’ve become hot and bothered as I attempted to pose effective and acceptable questions whilst keeping pace with the person running on the treadmill alongside me; I’ve been anxious about seeming sufficiently serious as a researcher whilst asking busy professionals to reflect on how often they look out of their workplace windows; and I’ve sat on patios with those who would like to have a lot to say about the gardens on which they have spent quite a lot of money, but still sometimes found themselves comparatively lost for words. Many interviews were involved in the four studies that I discuss. Indeed, part of the point of the book was to really dig into what was happening in all these conversations to see what they told me about how everyday life works for people and how the ‘outdoors’ can sometimes be unsettling.
Looking back, I must admit that it wasn’t always easy to stage discussions about ways of living to which people no longer gave a great deal of thought. But, for me, that was precisely the point. The extent to which people found it easy or hard to talk about how their lives went on told me a lot about how fully they had been recruited into particular practices. And that, in turn, told me a lot about how and whether it might be possible to encourage those in similar situations to benefit from their greenspaces. If we want to promote these benefits, we could do a lot worse than ask about how it feels to be in outside spaces, how lunchtimes work, what you think about when you are on the treadmill, and why plants can be scary. Plus talking about these things often turns out to be enjoyable for people too because it presents them with an opportunity to mull over how their lives work.
Going back to the pandemic, a lot of people have talked about ‘building back better’ – using the shock of the virus to establish new ‘normals’ that are preferable to the old. What my book hopefully shows regarding greenspace experience is how easy it can be to settle into different normals of whatever kind. So maybe now that we have been forced into thinking about how exactly we want to live with our greenspaces, this is the time to stick with some of our positive new habits. Either way, it is worth thinking about how relevant social trends sweep through our societies.
In my book, I focused on trends in how people work, in how they wash, in how they shop and where they exercise. All of these can, in various subtle ways, act to push the idea of a closer, fuller, more enriching relationship with greenspace off the table. And, though it can be easy to forget about this process when people are often busy, there is good reason to pause and reflect on how to influence it. After all, ways of life are never as fixed as they may feel at the time. Covid-19 has certainly shown us that.
About the author: Russell Hitchings is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at University College London, UK. He has studied everyday life in a variety of contexts around the world and has published widely on qualitative methods, energy consumption, climate adaptation and nature experience.
Suggested further reading
This post is based on Russell’s new book in the RGS-IBG Book series:
Hitchings, R. (2021). The unsettling outdoors: Environmental estrangement in everyday life. Oxford, UK: Wiley