Matt McClelland, Activities Coordinator, NPA
If you draw a circle around Sydney, half of it is native bushland. This is extraordinary, and a big surprise to many Sydneysiders. This proximity to such large areas of native bushland is true for many cities and large towns across NSW, making this state unique in Australia and internationally. There are many benefits and issues that come from having so many protracted areas in our backyards.
Good for people – good for nature
Managing natural spaces in urban areas is fraught with challenges. Neighbours do not always welcome the ‘intrusion’ of creatures that dig, peck and screech. Weeds are difficult to manage. People build tracks, gardens, take plants/rocks and dump rubbish.
Even though they are not pristine wilderness, they are still good. They are a refuge for migratory birds, especially after a horrific fire season. They provide corridors and islands for biodiversity. They improve air quality, clean waterways and help mitigate flooding. They stabilise the temperature, and cool hot cities. Any natural area is good for nature everywhere. Nature is also good for people, especially for those who are connected to nature. Finally, people who are connected to nature are the ones who are most likely to fight to protect it.
For its own sake
Nature is important for its own sake. Nature provides many benefits for people, but I think it is important to remember that nature is intrinsically important for its own sake, not just for the benefits we derive. Natural processes have existed long before people roamed this earth and are likely to continue for long after. Now that we have considered life at the millions-of-years time scale, let’s zoom in and focus on now.
Green space is good for our health
It is very well established through research, that spending time in nature is good for mental and physical health, as well as reducing morbidity and mortality. It does not need to be a wilderness area; even spending time active in open parkland is good for us.
The dose matters
The amount of time you spend in nature is important. You do not need to spend your lifetime walking wilderness tracks to get the benefits. A study looking at the relationship of time and outcome (this is called a “dose-response analysis”), focused on improvements to depression and high blood pressure, shows that spending 30 minutes or more per week in a green space can reduce the population-wide prevalence by up to 7% and 9%, respectively [https://www.nature.com/articles/srep28551]. That is a huge benefit for such a small amount of time – assuming we can get the people out there exploring these amazing places.
Now is the time to connect
We know that your childhood nature experiences, as well as the duration of current nature experiences, are good predictors of your connectedness to nature. Interestingly, your current exposure to quality nature experiences is correlated with a higher sense of nature connection, even if you did not have those childhood nature experiences [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0013916518811431]. So, it is never too late to connect. Now really is time to get out and to invite your friends to join you.
The pigeon paradox
There is growing evidence that global conservation is dependent on the urban nature experience [https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00533.x]. Even though our natural areas in urban environments are not pristine (eg over run with non native pigeons), they still play a vital role in connecting people to nature and providing motivation for global conservation. Basically, this means that for us humans to get many health benefits we do not need to spend time in a pristine native ecosystem. We should still aim to protect many ecosystems to very high standards, but for the sake of this article let’s not get to snobby about our wilderness experiences.
The first date
Jacques Cousteau said that “People Protect What They Love”. Connecting to nature and falling in love takes time. We fall in love as we spend time in different settings, different conditions, different places and understand some of the mysteries. The first date needs to go well to get people out for a second walk. Also, if we can make that first experience easy to access then it is far more likely to happen. It is important that as we become more comfortable with more wild places that we keep a love for the local, less perfect places, that are perfect for daily interactions. At the risk of dragging this analogy too far, the best first date is a double date with friends. Most people really like the idea of getting out for a walk in nature with a friend, but they will not ask you. Invite your friends out on a walk, and pick a walk that is a good first experience.
Where the people are
In Australia, 9 out of 10 people live in urban areas. NSW stands on the shoulders of thousands of years of Indigenous care, and hundreds of years of lobbying, to have so many natural places in the areas where people live. Let’s not take that for granted, nor let them slip away.
Let’s get to it
The NPA program is full of great walks and adventures to help us connect with nature. Not all programed walks are local or ideal for first timers. Keep an eye on your local program and chat with your leaders about the kind of walks you would like to do (or consider leading yourself). Just because you are a member of the NPA (or another awesome walking group) does not mean all your walks have to be with the group.
This is a good opportunity for me to plug Bushwalking 101, NPA’s guide on thriving on track, a useful website for beginners and experienced walkers.
From small things – big things grow
So, are you thinking you want more nature in your life? Building up a new habit is a process, don’t rush the process.
Here are 4 simple things to do when starting any new habit
- Set small easy to achieve goals.
If you have not being walking much, start with a daily 5 minute walk to the end of the block and back. Something that you can do every day.
- Increase change in habits in small increments
That big goal you have in your head is great – work towards it. Start with your small goal from point one and just add a little bit more each day or week. Jumping too quickly may lead to you missing a goal and giving up.
- If you miss a habit, don’t stress, just get back on track quickly.
Try to build a rhythm, if you miss a walk, that is okay, just make it a priority to get back on track quickly. Once you start to miss a few that is when the habit will stop, maybe dial the goals back a bit, just get back into doing something.
- Think long term, see how your habit will grow.
Have a big picture goal in mind and enjoy the journey of building up to it. I believe that ‘the holiday you are planning is often the best’ – there is a lot of joy in working towards a goal. The goal maybe undertaking a specific walk or maybe a general fitness goal – just give yourself time to build up to it in small chunks. Most important is to enjoy the journey to the goal.
Finding local walks
One thing that I have learned from the crazy year that has been 2020 is that hyper-local walking is awesome. As much as I still love my big long adventures (I had 21 consecutive days on track last summer in Tassie) there is something wonderful about short daily strolls through the local bush or parkland.
Chat with locals
It is always worth chatting with other NPA’ers asking ‘Where do you walk the most?’, ‘What is a great walk to take a first timer on?’, ‘Where do you prefer to walk when it is hot/cold/wet?’
Open Street Map (OSM)
OSM is the wikipedia of maps. Anyone can update and improve the map. It sounds like a mess, but it is very helpful. The basic idea is that I add my neighbourhood, you add yours and we are both better off.
A quick zoom in on Armidale and I see some great tracks to start exploring. If you know other tracks that are not on the map and should be, create an account and add them.
Both Google Maps and Six maps have amazing aerial images of the state. These are great ways to get a feel for where there is bushland. We still need to use other maps to work out where the tracks are, and to work out what is public and private land.
Tourism Sites & local books
There are many great local tourist walks that we sometimes underrate. Check out tripadvisor.com.au and visitnsw.com. Drop into your local library or bookshop. There are so many local bushwalking guidebooks that are invaluable.