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How does childhood exposure to natural environments influence adult well-being?

Ahead of World Children’s Day on 20 November 2022, research conducted by SEI York and University of York Human Geography and Environment PhD student Ying Wang shows that spending time in and valuing natural environments in childhood leads to higher attachment to these kinds of places in adulthood. This attachment directly impacts adult well-being, but its influence is also conditioned on childhood-adult environmental differences.

Wang is co-supervised by SEI York Senior Research Fellow Steve Cinderby and Community Scientist Alison Dyke.

Published on 18 November 2022

Ours is an urbanizing world that in many locations means people migrating from rural to urban environments, as well as leading to them adapt psychologically to a new set of daily routines and establish new social connections1. With the expansion and increasing intensity of human intervention in the landscape, there are an increasing number of new urban residents who feel disconnected from the more natural environments of their childhoods. This can lead to the psychological pain of “homelessness” and loss of “rootedness”2. There is a need to identify approaches that can help improve the adaptability of new urban residents to this transition to improve their well-being.

Sociologists have put forward the concept of “place attachment” (PA) based on the human-land relationship. Over the last few decades, studies on this topic have focused on social attachment (social relationships) to the contemporary place, while less attention has been paid to attachments to past places (childhood residence) and the relationship with the physical quality of these environments (degree of naturalness)3. The largely historic nature of the rural-urban migration and resulting land-use changes in the Global North make it difficult for Western scholars to be fully cognizant of the severe problem of PA brought by ongoing rapid urbanization in the Global South and significant nationwide environmental changes occurring in many regions. A study published earlier this year (in Chinese) aims to explore whether attachment to childhood residence is related to its naturalness and the impacts of the severity of child-adult environmental changes on an individual’s well-being in adulthood (Figure 1). Improving this understanding can help planners design urban settings that can reduce this psychological disconnection resulting from changing environments for new migrants and help improve their well-being.

Figure 1. Model of childhood place attachment and adult well-being

Figure 1. Model of childhood place attachment and adult well-being.
Source: Wang, Y., Wang, W., Sun, Z. and Hu, B (2022).

Through regression analysis and one-way analysis of variance, the results showed that the naturalness of childhood place can positively predict the degree of PA. Whether from the psycho-evolutionary view (nature) or the product of the social learning process (nurture), this confirms that people typically prefer places with higher naturalness that facilitate and trigger human-place interactions. With more frequent interactions, people attach more individual meanings and affections to a place, fostering and strengthening these attachments.

In the study, when respondents were asked about their memories of childhood places in semi-structured interviews, those who grew up in rural areas mentioned outdoor activities more frequently and had stronger emotional expressions, such as happiness, freedom and pride. This affect appears to have a threshold in that when the degree of naturalness reaches a certain level, PA does not significantly increase. This signifies that once there is a certain amount of green space around a person’s living environment, irrespective of its quality, people are capable of building strong attachments and that this does not require wild or varied environments.

An individual’s attachment to childhood place can positively influence well-being in later life. Previous regression results showed that after controlling potential variables affecting mental health, there was a significant correlation between childhood PA and adult well-being. This finding is consistent with Morgan et al.‘s theory4 that individuals who are able to establish a high level of attachment in childhood develop a more sophisticated brain structure and are more likely to have a sense of security. Accordingly, they are expected to have a better ability to establish an attachment to new places and improve their satisfaction with current places supporting their well-being in adulthood. In the interviews, several respondents with both high PA and high levels of well-being confirmed that they rapidly established a sense of belonging in new unfamiliar environments.

The impact of childhood PA on adult well-being is mediated by the degree of change between an individual’s juvenile and current environments. Individuals who had formed weak place attachments growing up, but had now migrated to locations with less degree of naturalness –undergoing a significant change in change in environments – viewed this as a positive transition, escaping from undesirable past locations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who moved frequently in childhood only formed moderate attachments to places irrespective of their environmental quality. For the final group who formed strong childhood PA, the relationship between the degree of change in environmental setting and well-being is complex. On the one hand, strong attachment to childhood place can increase an individual’s ability to build up attachments in new places and improve well-being in adulthood. On the other hand, excessive PA or significant changes in the quality of their current environment cause certain individuals to be unable to integrate into their current places. This could be due to a failure of finding familiar visual cues, breaking their PA self-continuity and/or endangering their well-being.

Four types of residence landscape (increasing naturalness from left to right)

Four types of residence landscape (increasing naturalness from left to right).
Photos: Wang, Y., Wang, W., Sun, Z. and Hu, B (2022).

In fast-growing developing countries where population density is high and urban land scarce, these finding presents a significant opportunity for urban planners to optimize the allocation of land resources, simultaneously meeting the needs of economic development, densification and resident well-being. The results indicate a need to integrate resident environmental preferences, based partly on childhood PA, into land-use planning decisions. This will require greater levels of participation and inclusion in planning. The findings highlight the need to expand the equitable distribution of green space as cities expand while also preserving valued places in urban settings to maintain connectedness linked to place attachments that support emotional well-being.

Ying Wang is a Human Geography and Environment PhD student, co-supervised by Dr Steve Cinderby and Dr Alison Dyke in SEI York. Her research explores how the rural aesthetics mediated by nostalgia influence stress-related restorative effects, in the context of “The Falling Leaf Returns To Root” of Chinese traditional culture. With a background in Landscape Architecture and Landscape and Well-being, Ying’s research interests centre around environmental (in)equality and (in)health justice, natural environment, mental health, and decision making.

This piece is based on an article (in Chinese) published earlier this year by Wang.

Written by

Ying Wang

SEI co-supervisors

Steve Cinderby

Senior Research Fellow

SEI York

Alison Dyke

Research Fellow

SEI York


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