Most New Zealanders live in urban areas and are getting fewer opportunities to engage with nature. In this story, we meet researcher Dr Danielle Shanahan who is investigating why nature is important for all of us.
This is part of the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, exploring New Zealand women scientists working at the intersection of people and nature. These stories are a feature for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020.
Dr Danielle Shanahan is one of New Zealand’s leading researchers on the health and wellbeing benefits of nature. While her original area of interest was birds, she quickly realised that, in order to achieve real conservation change, a strong connection between people and nature was needed. Now the Director of Zealandia’s Centre for People and Nature, she leads conservation and restoration work at the Wellington urban ecosanctuary while researching nature connection and why it matters.
“When I started in this field, we knew little about what a connection between people and nature even was or meant. Where a lot of this research has taken us is to try and explore those multiple different dimensions in the ways we connect. There’s not just one way of connecting, it’s this myriad of different things and means something slightly different to all people. It’s such a complex landscape. There are health and wellbeing aspects, there are cultural values, there’s sense of place, there’s sense of connection. All those things have value as a society. From my perspective, just trying to unpick this incredible ecosystem of people and nature is the goal.”
New Zealand’s population is growing and becoming more diverse, which is changing the ways in which we engage with nature. Research has shown that people from different community groups, ethnic backgrounds and life stages all have different desires and expectations from nature experiences. For some, the goal is to get as far from the city as possible, preferring camping, hiking and outdoor adventures. For others, the preference is for somewhere close to home, where friends and family can meet, cook and share time together.
Measuring the importance of that nature exposure is Danielle’s speciality. As inner-city populations grow and the pressures of modern life increase, more people are losing out on opportunities to get outdoors into natural settings. In a 2015 article in BioScience, she and her team explored the combination of intensity, frequency and duration of nature exposure that would create a health-giving ‘dose’ of nature. Danielle describes spending time in nature as like taking a multivitamin.
“Spending time in nature helps enhance health and wellbeing in so many different ways. Spending time in nature helps us recover from mental fatigue. It enhances our immune system, it reduces the chance we will suffer anxiety or depression, and it improves our heart health.”
An inner-city green space with manicured lawns and a few trees for shade may deliver fantastic health and wellbeing benefits for people but doesn’t provide much for native plants and animals. Danielle sees new challenges and opportunities for the people and wildlife in our cities.
“I think there will always be tension because some of our species simply can’t live in these modified landscapes. You know, you imagine a tīeke, it needs that deep dark forest, it needs protection from predators, and achieving those things may always be impossible in cities. So in city environments, we really need to be rethinking what we’re trying to achieve.”
Zealandia has been instrumental in the increase in kākā numbers in Wellington and also some of the challenges caused by this success.
For Danielle, the goal is clear: help people to see the value in nature and, through this, create lasting and effective conservation of Aotearoa New Zealand’s native biodiversity.
UPDATE In September 2021 Danielle took up the postion of Zealandia's Chief Executive.
Danielle studied under Dr Yolanda van Heezik, New Zealand’s first urban ecologist.
Orokonui Ecosanctuary is another mainland island sanctuary near Dunedin.
Our changing ecosystems is a timeline that looks at some of the historical changes in New Zealand’s unique ecosystems.
Read about the Predator Free 2050 initiative and see the comprehensive teaching resource (produced by Zealandia, with support from WWF New Zealand) that supports New Zealand schools to explore the pest-free vision with students.
The article Working as a scientist provides a brief overview of some of the many scientists featured on the Hub. Use it to discover some of the reasons people choose a science-related career and some of the things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.
Use these Pinterest boards for more profiles of people working in science.
Read Dr Shanahan’s 2015 article Five ways nature can improve our health from BioScience and her research report The connection between people, nature and wellbeing in Wellington, Part 1 that was released in Februrary 2019.
A 2020 European study Biological diversity evokes happiness found that the number of bird species in a person’s surroundings correlates to happiness.
Read this 2022 article, Why do we love the great outdoors? New research shows part of the answer is in our genes from The Conversation, Danielle was one of the authors.
This article was written by Anastasia Turnbull.