Connection to nature in cities

Shanahan, D.F., Cox, D.T.C, Fuller, R.A., Hancock, S., Lin, B.B., Anderson, K., Bush, R. & Gaston, K.J. (2017) Variation in experiences of nature across gradients of tree cover in compact and sprawling cities. Landscape and Urban Planning 157, 231-238. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_309919712

Urban environments are expanding globally, and by 2050 nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in towns and cities, where opportunities to experience nature are more limited than in rural areas. This transition could have important implications for health and wellbeing given the diversity of benefits that nature delivers. Despite these issues, there is a lack of information on whether or how the experience of nature changes as green space becomes less available. We explore this question for residents of two case study cities of varying urban designs, sprawling (Brisbane, Australia) and compact (three English towns, U.K). Second, we examine how people’s feelings of connection to nature (measured using the Nature Relatedness scale) vary across this same gradient of nature availability. Despite climatic and cultural differences we found substantial similarities between the two locations. Lower levels of neighbourhood tree cover were associated with a reduced frequency of visits to private and public green spaces, and a similar pattern was found for the duration of time spent in private and public green spaces for Brisbane. Residents of both urban areas showed similar levels of nature relatedness, and there was a weak but positive association between tree cover and Nature Relatedness. These results suggest that regardless of the style of urban design, maintaining the availability of nature close to home is a critical step to protect people’s experiences of nature and their desire to seek out those experiences.

Getting more benefits from your garden

Lin, B.B., Gaston, K.J., Fuller, R.A., Wu, D.S., Bush, R., Shanahan, D.F. 2017. How green is your garden?: Urban form and socio-demographic factors influence yard vegetation, visitation, and ecosystem service benefits. Landscape and Urban Planning 157, 239-246. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_77993656

Private yards provide city residents with access to ecosystem services that can be realized through passive (vegetation availability) and active (time spent in yards: frequency and duration) means. However, urban densification is leading to smaller yards with less vegetation. Here, we examine how urban form and socio-demographic factors affect the potential ecosystem service benefits people can gain via passive (e.g. climate regulation) and active (e.g. recreation) pathways. Two measures of vegetation cover (0.15–2 m, >2 m) are used as a proxy for passive ecosystem service benefits, and two measures of yard use (use frequency, total time spent across a week) are used for active ecosystem service benefits. We use survey and GIS data to measure personal and physical predictors that could influence these variables for 520 residents of detached housing in Brisbane, Australia. We found house age and yard size were positively correlated with vegetation cover, and people with a greater nature relatedness and lower socio-economic disadvantage also had greater vegetation cover. Yard size was an important predictor of yard use, as was nature relatedness, householder age, and presence of children in the home. Vegetation cover showed no relationship, indicating that greater cover alone does not promote ecosystem service delivery through the active use pathway. Together our results show that people who have higher nature relatedness may receive greater benefits from their yards via both passive and active means as they have more vegetation available to them in their yards and they interact with this space more frequently and for longer time periods.

Why do people feed birds?

Cox, D.T.C. & Gaston, K.J. 2016. Urban bird feeding: connecting people with nature. PLoS One 11, e0158717. shutterstock_254521675 [Image from Shutterstock]

At a time of unprecedented biodiversity loss, researchers are increasingly recognizing the broad range of benefits provided to humankind by nature. However, as people live more urbanized lifestyles there is a progressive disengagement with the natural world that diminishes these benefits and discourages positive environmental behaviour. The provision of food for garden birds is an increasing global phenomenon, and provides a readily accessible way for people to counter this trend. Yet despite its popularity, quite why people feed birds remains poorly understood. We explore three loosely defined motivations behind bird feeding: that it provides psychological benefits, is due to a concern about bird welfare, and/or is due to a more general orientation towards nature. We quantitatively surveyed households from urban towns in southern England to explore attitudes and actions towards garden bird feeding. Each household scored three Likert statements relating to each of the three motivations. We found that people who fed birds regularly felt more relaxed and connected to nature when they watched garden birds, and perceived that bird feeding is beneficial for bird welfare while investing time in minimising associated risks. Finally, feeding birds may be an expression of a wider orientation towards nature. Overall, we found that the feelings of being relaxed and connected to nature were the strongest drivers. As urban expansion continues both to threaten species conservation and to change peoples’ relationship with the natural world, feeding birds may provide an important tool for engaging people with nature to the benefit of both people and conservation.

Crows clean up

Inger, R., Per, E., Cox, D.T.C. & Gaston, K.J. 2016. Key role in ecosystem functioning of scavengers reliant on a single common species. Scientific Reports 6, 29641.IMG_0184

The importance of species richness in maintaining ecosystem function in the field remains unclear.Recent studies however have suggested that in some systems functionality is maintained by a few abundant species. Here we determine this relationship by quantifying the species responsible for a key ecosystem role, carcass removal by scavengers. We find that, unlike those within largely unaltered environments, the scavenger community within our highly altered system is dominated by a single species, the Carrion crow, despite the presence of a number of other scavenging species. Furthermore, we find no relationship between abundance of crows and carcass removal. However, the overall activity of crows predicts carcass biomass removal rate in an asymptotic manner, suggesting that a relatively low level of abundance and scavenging activity is required to maintain this component of ecosystem function.

Benefits of doses of nature experience

Shanahan, D.F., Bush, R., Gaston, K.J., Lin, B.B., Dean, J., Barber, E. & Fuller, R.A. 2016. Health benefits from nature experiences depend on dose. Scientific Reports 6, 28551. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_228348913

Nature within cities will have a central role in helping address key global public health challenges associated with urbanization. However, there is almost no guidance on how much or how frequently people need to engage with nature, and what types or characteristics of nature need to be incorporated in cities for the best health outcomes. Here we use a nature dose framework to examine the associations between the duration, frequency and intensity of exposure to nature and health in an urban population. We show that people who made long visits to green spaces had lower rates of depression and high blood pressure, and those who visited more frequently had greater social cohesion. Higher levels of physical activity were linked to both duration and frequency of green space visits. A dose-response analysis for depression and high blood pressure suggest that visits to outdoor green spaces of 30 minutes or more during the course of a week could reduce the population prevalence of these illnesses by up to 7% and 9% respectively. Given that the societal costs of depression alone in Australia are estimated at AUD$12.6 billion per annum, savings to public health budgets across all health outcomes could be immense.

Knowing your plants

Robinson, B.S., Inger, R. & Gaston, K.J. 2016. A rose by any other name: plant identification knowledge & socio-demographics. PLoS One 11, e0156572. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_213069982

Concern has been expressed over societal losses of plant species identification skills. These losses have potential implications for engagement with conservation issues, gaining human wellbeing benefits from biodiversity (such as those resulting from nature-based recreational activities), and early warning of the spread of problematic species. However, understanding of the prevailing level of species identification skills, and of its key drivers, remains poor. Here, we explore socio demographic factors influencing plant identification knowledge and ability to classify plants as native or non-native, employing a novel method of using real physical plants, rather than photographs or illustrations. We conducted face-to-face surveys at three different sites chosen to capture respondents with a range of sociodemographic circumstances, in Cornwall, UK. We found that survey participants correctly identified c.60% of common plant species, were significantly worse at naming non-native than native plants, and that less than 20% of people recognised Japanese knotweed Fallopia japonica, which is a widespread high profile invasive non-native in the study region. Success at naming plants was higher if participants were female, a member of at least one environmental, conservation or gardening organisation, in an older age group (than the base category of 18–29 years), or a resident (rather than visitor) of the study area. Understanding patterns of variation in plant identification knowledge can inform the development of education and engagement strategies, for example, by targeting sectors of society where knowledge is lowest. Furthermore, greater understanding of general levels of identification of problematic invasive non-native plants can guide awareness and education campaigns to mitigate their impacts.

Identifying species at risk of extinction

Collen, B., Dulvy, N., Gaston, K.J., Gärdenfors, U., Keith, D.A., Punt, A.E., Regan, H.M., Böhm, M., Hedges, S., Seddon, M., Butchart, S.H.M., Hilton-Taylor, C., Hoffmann, M., Bachman, S.P. & Akçakaya, H.R. 2016. Clarifying misconceptions of extinction risk assessment with the IUCN Red List. Biology Letters 12, 20150843. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_57211396

The identification of species at risk of extinction is a central goal of conservation. As the use of data compiled for IUCN Red List assessments expands, a number of misconceptions regarding the purpose, application and use of the IUCN Red List categories and criteria have arisen. We outline five such classes of misconception; the most consequential drive proposals for adapted versions of the criteria, rendering assessments among species incomparable. A key challenge for the future will be to recognize the point where understanding has developed so markedly that it is time for the next generation of the Red List criteria. We do not believe we are there yet but, recognizing the need for scrutiny and continued development of Red Listing, conclude by suggesting areas where additional research could be valuable in improving the understanding of extinction risk among species.

Large scale variation in physiology

Chown, S.L. & Gaston, K.J. 2016. Macrophysiology – progress and prospects. Functional Ecology 30, 330-344. (Image for Shutterstock) shutterstock_70125001

1. Macrophysiology is the investigation of variation in physiological traits over large geographic and temporal scales and the ecological implications of this variation. It has now been undertaken, as a defined field, for a decade.
2. Here, we overview its conceptual foundations, methodological approaches and insights, together with challenges the field is facing currently.
3. Macrophysiology builds on approaches that investigate the ecological and evolutionary significance of physiological trait variation and feedbacks in these processes. One of its key strengths is its ability to provide a basis for examining interactions among the infraspecific, interspecific and assemblage levels.
4. Macrophysiology is distinct from and typically concerns larger spatial and temporal scales than conservation physiology, whereas it is in several respects similar to, but antecedes, functional biogeography. Contrary to some claims, macrophysiology is not concerned only with the implications for geographic ranges of physiological trait variation.
5. Several insights, which would not otherwise have been achieved, have arisen from the field, notably the understanding of variation in global patterns of upper and lower lethal temperature limits and organism performance, which have important implications for forecasting the impacts of climate change.
6. Ten major challenges are identified for the field of macroecology, including better integration of approaches and information for plants and animals. Nonetheless, the prospects for macrophysiology as a significant way to understand our world remain bright.

Lighting plants at night

Bennie, J., Davies, T.W., Cruse, D. & Gaston, K.J. 2016. Ecological effects of artificial light at night on wild plants. Journal of Ecology 104, 611-620. (Image from Shutterstock) shutterstock_309354440

1. Plants use light as a source of both energy and information. Plant physiological responses to light, and interactions between plants and animals (such as herbivory and pollination), have evolved under a more or less stable regime of 24-h cycles of light and darkness, and, outside of the tropics, seasonal variation in day length.
2. The rapid spread of outdoor electric lighting across the globe over the past century has caused an unprecedented disruption to these natural light cycles. Artificial light is widespread in the environment, varying in intensity by several orders of magnitude from faint skyglow reflected from distant cities to direct illumination of urban and suburban vegetation.
3. In many cases, artificial light in the night-time environment is sufficiently bright to induce a physiological response in plants, affecting their phenology, growth form and resource allocation. The physiology, behaviour and ecology of herbivores and pollinators are also likely to be impacted by artificial light. Thus, understanding the ecological consequences of artificial light at night is critical to determine the full impact of human activity on ecosystems.
4. Synthesis. Understanding the impacts of artificial night-time light on wild plants and natural vegetation requires linking the knowledge gained from over a century of experimental research on the impacts of light on plants in the laboratory and glasshouse with knowledge of the intensity, spatial distribution, spectral composition and timing of light in the night-time environment. To understand fully the extent of these impacts requires conceptual models that can (i) characterize the highly heterogeneous nature of the night-time light environment at a scale relevant to plant physiology; and (ii) scale physiological responses to predict impacts at the level of the whole plant, population, community and ecosystem.

The loss of human-nature interactions

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2016) Extinction of experience: the loss of human–nature interactions. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14(2), 94-101. (Image from Shutterstock)shutterstock_305051666

Increasingly, people are becoming less likely to have direct contact with nature (natural environments and their associated wildlife) in their everyday lives. Over 20 years ago, Robert M Pyle termed this ongoing alienation the “extinction of experience”, but the phenomenon has continued to receive surprisingly limited attention. Here, we present current understanding of the extinction of experience, with particular emphasis on its causes and consequences, and suggest future research directions. Our review illustrates that the loss of interaction with nature not only diminishes a wide range of benefits relating to health and well-being, but also discourages positive emotions, attitudes, and behavior with regard to the environment, implying a cycle of disaffection toward nature. Such serious implications highlight the importance of reconnecting people with nature, as well as focusing research and public policy on addressing and improving awareness of the extinction of experience.