Belgians see nature in their municipality deteriorating

This is the main preliminary result of a large-scale survey conducted by the Universities of Antwerp and Liège among more than 1200 Belgians. 60% indicated that the quality of nature in their municipality has decreased over the last 5 years, 75% observed a decline during their lifetime.

But on what exactly defines as nature, respondents showed much less agreement. The researchers asked which types of landscape were considered ‘nature’ by the participants and which were not. Respondents as expected strongly agreed that forests could be considered nature – and most found them beautiful. Wastelands however resulted in much more disagreement: they could either be seen as Noah’s arks where nature can express itself, or as abandoned areas craving for a clean-up.

“The definition of such a simple word as nature is far from obvious,” Jonas Lembrechts, one of the researchers, explains. “There is a large grey zone, landscapes on which everyone has a different opinion. It is precisely this grey zone that the researchers want to map out with this large-scale survey. Lembrechts explains: ‘we can expect that the definition will differ from one person to the next, depending on their experiences with the greenery around us’. For example, your place of residence can strongly influence your definition of nature: those who live in the city have a completely different picture of green space than those who have spent their entire lives in the countryside. In addition, age can also play a role: the older generation, for example, remembers how you could hear a lark chirping above almost every field. For young people on the other hand, it is a surprise that no noisy parakeets flew through the parks of Brussels a decade or two ago. Often we are hardly aware of these differences in perception.

The researchers also asked how people experienced nature during the Covid-19 lockdown period. Interestingly, a high proportion of people (60%) participating did not feel they had to miss nature, with about 70% saying they had spent more time in nature during lockdown than before. Although most respondents live in urban and suburban areas, most of them did consider themselves surrounded by nature on a daily basis. As about 80% of respondents reportedly has a garden, and 50% of them visit a green area in their municipality at least once a week, the importance of these local green patches cannot be underestimated.

A better understanding of what we experience as nature can explain what we hope nature will look like in the future. Even more importantly, it gives nature managers the opportunity to take this range of personal definitions into account in their policy and communication and increase support for much-needed nature management. Indeed: the definition might be vague, but survey participants showed strong agreement on at least one topic: that nature conservation matters.

You can still express your opinion about nature! The survey runs until November 1st and can be found at http://www.natureornot.be.

The #NatureOrNot project is an initiative of the University of Antwerp and Liège. For more information, contact Jonas Lembrechts (jonas.lembrechts@uantwerpen.be, 0471475321) or visit http://www.natureornot.be.

Nature or not, that’s the question! Do the typical heathlands, agricultural areas and fallow lands fall under the definition of nature for you?  

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