In this post Aspen Ono and Kai Chan discuss their new Research ‘Acculturation as an ecosystem service? Urban natural space supports evolving relational values and identity in new female migrants‘ out today. The authors have also written a plain language summary ‘Nature nurtures newcomers: The role of natural urban environments in helping migrants adapt to their host country‘.

Photo Credit: Santa J. Ono.

When we hear about migrants’ relationships to natural environments in their newly adopted homes, two dominant narratives tend to come to mind.

The first is a tale of deprivation. Existing environmental justice studies have found that migrants visit public greenspaces less than their non-migrant counterparts. Migrants have reported multiple barriers to accessing nature including poverty, fear of gender violence, lack of leisure time due to hectic work schedule, and unfamiliarity with their environment.

The second and potentially more dangerous narrative is that of indifference. It has been posited that migrants have weaker connections or love for their host countries’ nature due to unfamiliarity or lack of childhood connection.

So in 2018, when we set out to study migrant use and experiences of nature in Metro Vancouver, that’s exactly what we believed we would find. Allowing participants to describe and apply their own understanding of nature or a natural space (including parks, tree lined streets, beaches, community gardens, etc.), we inquired into their use and experiences in ‘Canadian nature’.

We expected to hear about the challenges of being a new migrant. We expected to learn about practical, physical, and socio-economic challenges that hindered migrants’ use of Vancouver’s abundant natural spaces. We expected that our participants would lack access to nature and we wondered whether they would care.

Imagine our surprise when our sample of recent female migrants told us that they engage with ‘nature’ on a near daily basis and care deeply about it. One individual said, “Canada is this beautiful nature, the land is amazing…In Canada, because God has blessed us with this beautiful land, beautiful people, we have to explore, we have to know it.” 

These women use Canadian natural spaces to exercise, socialize, and cope with the many stressors they face post migration. Furthermore, they shared that these spaces help them develop a sense of belonging and familiarity with Canada and Canadian culture. In the eyes of the interviewees, nature supports them on their path to becoming Canadian.

Participants’ sense of adopting a Canadian identity often includes not only appreciation for beautiful Canadian natural spaces, but also the freedom and security to enjoy them without fear of persecution or personal harm. Nature is their safe space, their sanctuary in unfamiliar terrain.

Participants identified nature as a space to make new friends and learn about Canadian culture and norms. One woman said that joining a community garden, which was her understanding of nature, gave her a sense of belonging: “It feels like we are a big family. I think going to the garden gives me a feeling that Canadians are united, because they will know each other better by working together. People will strive and fight for the same goal.”

Natural spaces and environmental programming can not only welcome in migrants, the shared love of nature can drive positive action and pro-environmental change. In fact, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development says that international migrants can be a vital asset on the pathway towards a sustainable future. To mobilize this force, we need to make sure these green spaces and their programming are designed with thoughtful, participatory and gender-inclusive outreach.

Despite the contributions that natural spaces make to migrant well-being, they still face barriers to accessing and benefiting from certain types of outdoor spaces, particularly wilder, more remote, non-urban spaces.

As one participant in the study said, “I am not familiar with (outdoor) places here. I only know these downtown parks, you know? I would love to know more about here because I am going to live here…so I am trying to become friends with it. I just, I don’t know where to go.”

Designing programs that help break down these barriers is one more step towards inclusive outdoor recreation opportunities and diverse environmental protection movements that welcome and include everyone. Perhaps we all want to be “friends” with the natural environments in which we live. Programs that foster those friendships will serve the greater community and natural world alike.