Experiencing and Connecting to Nature: An Urban to Rural Association

Andrew Holden[1] and Katherine Lupton

Institute for Tourism Research, University of Bedfordshire, Luton, UK


How tourism is experienced is not a chance occurrence but is shaped by the dynamics of the societies and the environments we populate. The dominant trend of human habitation is towards urbanization, with over 50% of the world’s population now residing in metropolitan areas. In 2014, 54% of the global population was living in urban settlements, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66% by 2050 (United Nations, 2014). Whilst the potential opportunities for improved livelihoods from urban systems are not to be underestimated, the process of urbanization is recognized as leading to a disconnection between ourselves and nature, as our reliance on the immediate environment to meet our needs decreases.

Using the example of the UK as a highly urbanized and economically developed country, this disconnection to nature is recognized as a serious challenge to achieving sustainable development and also the well-being of citizens (Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2011a; Moss, 2012; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), 2013). Whilst offering a potential benefit for the conservation of nature, a connectedness to nature has also been proven to have positive benefits on individual psychological and physiological health (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Chawla, 1992; Louv, 2005; Rogerson and Barton, 2015). It may subsequently be advocated that it is in the economic interests of national governments to have a population that is emotionally connected to nature.

In response to the challenge of an increasing disconnect of its population from nature, the UK government made a commitment to reconnect society with nature and encourage proactive environmentally responsible behaviour (ERB) (DEFRA, 2011a). A part of this commitment includes for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than they inherited it. The theme of ERB was reinforced in the government’s commitment to reduce biodiversity loss in the report ‘Biodiversity 2020’. A key aim is that: ‘By 2020, significantly more people will be engaged in biodiversity issues, aware of its value and taking positive action’ (DEFRA, 2011b, p.14). The report also highlights a probable correlation between an individual’s level of direct contact with nature and how much care and respect they have for it. However, despite the clear aims of these reports, there is little strategic direction detailing exactly how a connection or reconnection may be developed beyond encouraging outdoor recreation and education.

Simultaneous to an increasing global urban population is a trend for increasing demand for nature-based tourism. This desire to have recreational experiences in nature away from urban environments may be understood as a symptom of a sense of disconnection to nature and a subsequent desire to reconnect to it (Holden, 2016). It is typified by recreational day-trips to rural areas close to towns and cities, a landscape that is typically characterized by agriculture and evidence of human presence, often referred to as ‘countryside’, and to places of nature that are much further from home, often labelled as ‘wilderness’, that are perceived as untouched by human interference and require substantially more time and financial investment to arrive at. In this chapter the context of ‘rural’ is applied in a broad sense to denote non-urban landscapes that are interpreted as either being totally natural, i.e. free of human interference, or are recognized as having been modified by human endeavour but within which experiences of nature are attainable. The subsequent aim of the chapter is to evaluate the potential of tourism experiences in rural areas to connect urbanites to nature and to help develop ERB.

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