A Sense of Place: Exploring Nature & Wellbeing through the Non-Visual Senses

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


We are regularly told that spending time in nature is good for us. The extent of the link between nature and wellbeing is apparently so strong that the Wildlife Trusts are currently campaigning for 'a Nature and Wellbeing Act for England'. Capaldi et al. argue (2015) that 'evidence suggests that connecting with nature is one path to flourishing in life' and that spending time in nature is therefore a 'potential wellbeing intervention'. Other studies have similarly explored themes such as 'the health benefits of contact with nature in a park context' or the value of 'green exercise' as a wellbeing tool. Many of these studies provide evidence to support a general idea that nature is 'good for us'. Yet, their construction of 'nature' is often broad and definitions of wellbeing typically loose. What exactly is it about 'nature' that improves our 'wellbeing'? What do these two terms actually mean to people?

Many of the links between wellbeing and nature relate to walking and activity, but many others are based on an idea that merely 'being in nature' can be good for body and soul. This perceived connection between 'being in nature' and wellbeing has a long social and cultural history, yet is rarely critically examined. In wellbeing literature, the value of nature is often understood in terms of 'green spaces' or attractive landscapes. In hospitals, nature is often introduced through pictures of landscapes or artificial plants. Such frameworks implicitly assume that the value of nature for wellbeing is inextricably linked to the ability to see it, and they often treat 'nature' as homogeneous. What if we remove the visual, and focus on the smells, tastes or sounds of nature? What if we immerse people in unfamiliar or 'wild' natural sensescapes? Does everybody associate the same sensory aspects of nature with wellbeing, or are the relationships more diverse and complex? We will use emerging immersive 360-degree sound and smell technologies to explore some of these questions.

Planned Impact

This project is a starting point for further development and impact. Due to the limited time frame of this project, we are producing a prototype experience that seeks to identify the main opportunities for impact. A main output for this stage of the project will be a clear 'pathway to impact' plan - including developing appropriate methodologies - for at least one of the two routes below, ready for the next stage.

We have identified two main strands for this impact activity in phase 2 of the project, in terms of contexts that would benefit from multi-sensory immersive simulation (instead of 'real' nature). We will explore which of these strands has the most potential for impact, through (a) feedback on the prototype experience; and (b) inviting relevant potential partners to the September workshop. The prototype experience will have at least 20 public spaces, but we will also keep five for invited partners who are interested in working with us further to develop one of the following impact strands:
1) HEALTHCARE AND WELLBEING. The first strand relates to the potential value of site-specific immersive installations for healthcare and wellbeing purposes. We will identify groups that would benefit from technology that 'brings nature' to sites with limited access to such spaces. We have existing relationships with urban hospitals (including Southmead Hospital and Bristol Royal Infirmary), who provide one potential audience for this kind of installation, if the technology can be made sufficiently low-maintenance for long-term use. We will invite these contacts to our prototype experience, and to our September workshop. We will also explore the potential value that technologies might have in these places for people who have specific sensory needs, in terms of enabling them to control and 'pick their own' nature/wellbeing sensescapes. As our immersive installations will include the capacity to manage levels / proportions of different sensory experiences, we see potential value for those with heightened sensory awareness or sensory impairment. We will explore this potential impact by seeking a diverse public audience, including those with specific sensory needs, at our prototype experience. Ronald Ligtenberg will also explore the potential for our prototype experiences to feed into Skyway Program's work with deaf communities, as part of this potential impact pathway. There are also potentially more commercial applications connected to health, in wellbeing and spa industries.
2) CULTURE. We envisage great and varied potential value for such technologies in multi-sensory 'scene setting' in performance, culture and heritage spheres. For these spheres, the main benefit will relate to engaging audiences both for commercial and non-commercial purposes. Stephanie Singer and Ronald Ligtenberg, Consultant and Co-I on this stage of the project respectively, already work in these environments and will explore this potential impact strand as we test the prototypes. They will consider the potential values of our prototype sensory experiences within the performance spheres, including the arts, theatre and dining. Clare Hickman also has experience of working with the heritage sector to recreate the environment of historic gardens, and will explore the potential for multi-sensory versions of this work as we test our prototype experience. We have further contacts in this area, including academics working on the cultural representation of nature and wellbeing (such as Samantha Walton, Bath Spa University, 'Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing'), who will also be invited to our prototype experience and September workshop.

More detail on how we expect to achieve impact in these areas can be found in the 'pathways to impact' attachment.


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