Health Nature, Healthy Us

Louise Chawla speaker at Radically Rural remote summit in September.

Throughout history, nature has been cited for its healing powers. Hippocrates, around 460 B.C., told us that “nature is the best physician.” These days, however, an alienation from nature and our place in it has risen, according to an expert in this relationship, and surprisingly so in rural areas.

Bertrand de Jouvenel, the eminent French political philosopher, explains, “As the world is ruled from towns where men are cut off from any form of life other than human, the feeling of belonging to an ecosystem is not revived.”

A burgeoning new field of research tracks reciprocity between humans and nature. Louise Chawla, a University of Colorado Boulder professor and environmental psychologist, will share her findings at this year’s Radically Rural Remote summit as part of the Land and Community Track. Her evidence that humans require contact with the natural world for happiness and wellbeing has exposed new ways to convey the everyday importance of our living landscapes.

Chawla focuses on children and their access to nature and has found rural townscapes are often the least likely places to be designed with ample space for trees and greenery. What’s more, rural schools often have the shortest recess times and feature asphalt playgrounds. Chawla engages youth in the design and planning of their own outdoor spaces.

It has long been known that those of a higher socioeconomic status are often healthier, less plagued by chronic disease and have longer life spans. It is also true that children of affluent parents with access to more resources perform better in schools. But relationships with nature can close those gaps.

“We need to be questioning the landscaping of rural towns and schools,” Chawla said. “Access to nature for every age, income and race needs to be at the center of rural development and public health initiatives.”

Chawla, who lives in Boulder, serves as an advisory board member of the Children and Nature Network. She is active with Growing Up Boulder, a project that connects faculty, students, city agencies and community partners to improve access to nature for children and youth, and to integrate young people’s voices into urban planning and the design of parks and housing sites.

A native of rural Kentucky, she hopes to share the importance of collaborative community action in rural areas. As small towns begin to process change in the wake of a global pandemic, she feels it’s important to articulate the connections between the health and wellbeing of animals and nature, and also the wellbeing of humankind.

“We are going to continue to see these kinds of new viruses as long as wildlife doesn’t have a healthy and intact ecosystem,” she said. “As wild areas become increasingly smaller due to human encounters, there is a larger and larger risk for new disease and virus.”

Chawla sees society, wrought with illness and social injustice, as wreaking havoc on collective mental health. Her hope is that the academic world will increasingly turn toward studying the connection between the environment and overall health of the human body and mind.

She hopes to bring these and other ideas into her session at Radically Rural, and is also excited to open her talk to an expert-led panel for examination and discussion of various, prescriptive environmental programs designed for youth and the elderly. Panelists will cover ways in which rural communities are using related research to engage citizens in conservation and greening efforts. The audience will be encouraged to ask questions and envision ways in which these efforts can and should be applied in their own regions.

Chawla’s session, Connecting with Nature: Rural Implications for Health and Land Use, will be held on Sept. 24 at 9 a.m. For more information and to register for this year’s event, visit radicallyrural.org.