A back garden in an urban area of North London, UK. Photo credit: Kate Howlett.

By Kate Howlett and Edgar C. Turner

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On average, children in the UK today have less daily contact with the natural world than previous generations. Yet we know that experiences in nature at a young age are important for wellbeing, skill development and health, as well as for inspiring future support for conservation. This disconnect from nature is often linked to a growing proportion of the population living in urban areas.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown restrictions limited people’s contact with nature to green spaces immediately accessible in their local neighbourhoods, such as private or communal gardens, public parks, or nearby nature reserves. In the UK, fewer urban households have gardens than those in rural areas, where the gardens also tend to be larger, while many rural areas are less well provided with publicly accessible green spaces, such as parks. Therefore, lockdown restrictions in the UK may have exacerbated differences in access to nature and experience between urban and rural children.

Via a qualitative online survey that included both open and closed questions, we explored attitudes towards green space amongst a sample of 30 rural parents, 80 suburban parents and 31 urban parents, all from Cambridgeshire and North London, in the southeast of the UK. All respondents were parents of children between the ages of 4 and 11 inclusive and were recruited via social media and the newsletters and mailing lists of the researchers’ institutions. We asked whether lockdown had affected parental views on the importance of green space or the amount of time their children spent outside, and we assessed whether there were differences in responses between urban or rural areas.

The majority of parents in urban areas reported wanting their children to have more access to green space than they currently had, whilst the majority of parents in rural areas said they were happy with the amount of green space their children had access to. We found that most rural parents reported being aware of the importance of green space before lockdown, while most urban parents said that lockdown had made them realise the importance of these spaces, when they had taken them for granted beforehand. Finally, urban children generally spent less time outside during lockdown in comparison to before, whilst rural children spent more time outside during lockdown in comparison to before. Collectively, our results suggest that lockdown may have exacerbated pre-existing green space inequalities between urban and rural children in our sample, with implications for children’s wellbeing and connection with nature. We suggest that interventions targeted towards urban children are important in ensuring equality of nature experience amongst children from different backgrounds/