Today’s post comes from Catherine Reining, a graduate in the Master of Environmental Studies program at Wilfrid Laurier University, who recently attended the 2019 Canadian Parks Conference in Quebec City.

 

We know spending time in nature offers health and well-being benefits, but what role do parks and protected areas play?

Parks and protected areas contribute significantly to physical, mental, spiritual, social, and environmental well-being by providing access to the natural environment where people can experience nature, have contact with plants and wildlife, and participate in a variety of activities year-round.

However, less is known about the experiences and environmental characteristics of parks and other forms of protected areas that influence these benefits such as the type of environment (i.e., forest, beach), quality of the environment (i.e., ecological integrity), and the amount of time spent in nature needed to have a beneficial health impact.

 

I recently completed my Masters of Environmental Studies (MES) at Wilfrid Laurier University under the supervision of Dr. Christopher Lemieux and Dr. Sean Doherty. Through my research, I collaborated with staff at Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada to better understand how visitor experiences provided by diverse natural environments in the park influence human health and well-being. My research explores the association between visitor’s self-reported restorative outcomes with the type and quality (ecological integrity) of the natural environments they experience. The results revealed high overall restorative outcomes from contact with nature, irrespective of visitor’s self-reported state of mental and physical health. While the type of environment had little influence, the perceived integrity of the environment had the greatest impact on restorative outcomes. This is the first study in Canada to consider the influence of ecological integrity on restorative outcomes, an important contribution to existing research.

In October 2019, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the Canadian Parks Conference and present my work under the Connection to Nature conference stream. The findings of my work highlight the importance of quality protected areas for providing restorative outcomes and will hopefully help to deliver planning and management interventions park managers can use for health promotion in parks. Presenting at the conference awarded an opportunity to showcase my research as well as engage other academics and practitioners in the conversation about the health and well-being benefits parks provide.

One of the highlights of my time at the Canadian Parks Conference was facilitating a pre-conference workshop hosted by the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership (CPCIL) and Parks Canada. The workshop consisted of a diverse group of practitioners, academics, indigenous organizations, and community partners coming together to identify needs and explore options on how to design, govern, and support a potential Pan-Canadian research network for parks and protected areas. As a Student Researcher, my role included working with one of the breakout groups during activities and contributing youth perspectives throughout. This was a great day filled with learning and sharing. As a student, I enjoyed hearing from leaders in the field and appreciated the opportunity to be part of the dialogue.

Throughout the pre-conference workshop on pan-Canadian research networks, I found myself reflecting on my own research, especially when beginning to consider how to build an inclusive network that translates the value of parks and protected areas between park managers and visitors. Throughout the conference, attendees heard about the various ways to connect to nature (e.g., health benefits, urban nature, parks as classrooms, technology in parks, etc.), but one important question stood out to me in the CPCIL workshop:

How do we put this information into a mechanism to communicate decision-making to the public?

It’s an important question. How do we not only create a network amongst each other, but amongst the public as well? In considering planning and management interventions informed by my own research, I will have to consider the challenges of balancing the dual mandate of maintaining ecological integrity and visitor use in parks. How to communicate the importance of ecological integrity to visitors while also encouraging visits for restorative benefits.

The workshop hosted by CPCIL and Parks Canada provided those in attendance an opportunity to share their insights and experiences as the first step in a larger process of creating a network that will allow for knowledge mobilization and evidence-based decision making (and there are a lot of great ideas!).

The Canadian Parks Conference offered personal and professional development, providing an opportunity to connect with other youth leaders and practitioners working on conservation issues. It was an excellent learning opportunity that initiated important conversation and reflection that I plan to carry forward.

Participation in the conference was supported by CPCIL and by Laurier’s McMurry Research Chair in Environmental Geography, Dean of Arts, Office of Research Services, and Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

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