On World Environment Day, what can we learn from lockdown?

. Credit: PA

One of the most striking things about lockdown, for myself and so many others I’ve spoken to, has been the way nature and the environment suddenly became one of our most valuable assets.

With the streets emptied of traffic and the skies free of planes, the sound of birdsong carried more easily.

As people took advantage of their one permitted bit of exercise a day, they explored nearby parkland and green space they had either never visited before, or never appreciated before.

With parents playing the role of teachers at home, they found innovative ways of both educating and entertaining their children, by using gardening or nature-spotting apps and challenges.

I’ve reported previously how pollution levels plummeted during those first few weeks, as wildlife around the world was spotted venturing into what would normally be human-only spaces.

A man exercises in an otherwise-deserted Canon Hill Park in Birmingham in April. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, research by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Women’s Institute found that 53% of people said they now appreciate local green spaces more, and 63% said protecting and enhancing green spaces should be a higher priority when lockdown ends.

“It’s hopefully highlighted that the countryside and open green space makes to our lives,” Ron Simpson, from the CPRE’s Rutland branch, told us.

“And when we’re talking about the next big development, one would hope that an important part of the planning ethos would be what lessons could have been learned.

“The ability to get out into open green space is clearly a health issue, and a mental health issue in particular.”

And there are tangible benefits of interacting with nature to mental health and wellbeing, too.

Goats take advantage of the quiet streets in Llandudno, Wales. Credit: PA

During Mental Health Awareness Week, ITV Central ran a special full programme examining the various emotional and psychological impacts of lockdown.

I spoke to bloggers, campaigners and professors who had all reached the same conclusion: Being in, and appreciating, green spaces and the natural world had hugely positive effects.

Throughout June, Wildlife Trusts across the country hold a nature challenge called 30 Days Wild - a daily activity urging people to engage with nature every day of the month.

These include ‘random acts of wildness’ ranging from walking barefoot on the grass, to sitting beneath a tree, to watching birds on a feeder.

And for the past five years, they - along with researchers at the University of Derby - have been following more than 1,100 people who’ve taken part to monitor what impact taking part has had on their health and mood.

Strikingly, they found that the benefits can last for months once June 30 has come and gone.

People reported appreciating nature more. Credit: PA

People were asked to rate their health, nature connectedness, happiness and pro-nature behaviour before beginning the challenge, again at the beginning of July when the challenge had finished, and then for a third time in September.

Overall, 30% of people reported their overall health had improved, while 56% said they felt more connected to nature.

People also reported feeling significantly happier, and were more likely to engage in pro-nature behaviour as a result.

Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby, was among those to conduct the research - which he said had produced “remarkable results”.

He said what stood out was the fact that those people who said at the start they didn’t really feel much of a connection with nature appeared to benefit the most.

The normally-congested Smallbrook Queensway in Birmingham city centre, almost deserted after lockdown was imposed Credit: PA

“It shows the positive power of simple engagement with nature. We were thrilled to see that the significant increases in people’s health and happiness were still felt even two months after the 30 Days Wild challenge was over,” he said.“The Wildlife Trusts have shown the importance of doing simple things to enjoy everyday nature and that it can bring considerable benefits.”

As lockdown eases, people return to work and traffic returns to the streets, one could be forgiven for thinking much of the world is returning to its pre-lockdown state.

But on World Environment Day, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on what we’ve learned over the past few weeks - and how we might take it forward to make the post-lockdown world a bit nicer.