United Nations: Make access to nature a human right
United Nations: Make access to nature a human right
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This is a direct call to the United Nations: make access to nature a human right.
Having accessible, local green space is essential to our well-being. It should be a right for all, not a luxury for the few.
Having access to a green, leafy environment is a fundamental human need, upon which our health and happiness depend. (See Section 1)
However, the United Nations (UN) does not yet recognise access to nature as a human right.
Why is this? The UN created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, in the wake of World War II. Addressing the concerns of the day, it enshrines 30 human rights, including access work and education, and freedom from torture and slavery. It does not, however, mention nature or the environment.
It hardly needs saying that, in the seven decades since the UDHR was created, the world has changed beyond recognition. Nature is disappearing – In Britain, half of ancient woodland and 97% of lowland meadows have been wiped out – and people have flocked from the countryside to cities. 70 years ago, two thirds of the world lived rurally. Today, over half the world's population live in urban developments, where nature has become an 'other' – a thing compartmentalised and enjoyed in doses. While, in 1948, nature might have seemed eternal and omnipresent, the sad truth is, access to nature is no longer something we can take for granted.
In the UK, 2.7 million people don’t live within accessible walking distance of a green space. In America, it’s a staggering 100 million. Globally, hundreds of millions of people are affected by nature deprivation, and the serious mental and physical afflictions it can – and does – cause. These figures will continue to rise, unless we take action to reverse them.
Our growing disconnect from the natural world is attracting scientists’ attention. Their research has created a painful irony: in step with our shrinking access to nature is a growing understanding of its necessity to our well-being. It's so crucial, in fact, that spending time in nature been compared to exercising, sleeping well, and eating your ‘five a day’. The mushrooming body of evidence from thousands of scientists – spanning disciplines and continents – supports what many of us intuitively feel: nature is a panacea. (See Section 2)
So, what can we do? To protect present and future generations’ emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing, we must enshrine access to green space as a human right.
The UN must make the world’s governments accountable for ensuring that their citizens have access to green space, alongside the other human rights provided by a fair, humanitarian society.
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Read on for further information about why access to nature must be officially recognised as a human right.
SECTION 1. Green Spaces are Key to Human Well-being
Humans, along with every other species on Earth, evolved over millennia in symbiotic harmony with the natural environment around us, our survival hinging on an ability to engage with our wild surroundings. Despite the technologies created in the last 0.1% of human history that (ostensibly) grant us independence from nature, our stubborn ancestral genes haven’t kept pace: we’re still hardwired to need immersion in verdure – the restorative sight of foliage, the calming scent of soil – to function, and to feel, our best.
This is shown, time and time again, in cases ranging across cultural and demographic borders. A ton of research tells us that contact with nature has a variety of significant benefits: people are healthier, physically fitter, happier and better adjusted if they have access to natural surroundings.
Green space is a mood-lifter, stress-reducer, anger-assuager, confidence-booster. It can even relieve and prevent debilitating mental illness, including depression, anxiety and psychotic disorders. It fuels brain-power too, keeping memory, focus and problem-solving faculties sharp, improving cognitive development as we grow, and slowing cognitive decline as we age. As for the rest of the body, the ‘Natural Health Service’ (as some analysts have dubbed it) works its magic through every somatic system, making us measurably fitter and more resilient to illness. Office staff take fewer sick days when they’re surrounded by houseplants, and hospital patients recover faster if they can see foliage from their beds.
Studies are ongoing, and it is likely that we will discover many more surprising and significant ways in which we rely on contact with nature for our health and happiness.
For references and more information, go to natureisahumanright.earth/resources.
SECTION 2. Globally, access to nature is under increasing threat
“The future of the world’s population is urban.” – United Nations ‘World Urbanization Prospects Report’ (2018)
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” – Joni Mitchell 'Big Yellow Taxi' (1970)
Today, over half the world's population (55%) – some 4.3 billion people – live in urban areas. This percentage is expected to grow a further 13% by 2050. This state of ongoing urbanisation has major implications for global wellbeing: hundreds of millions worldwide are at risk of nature deprivation and, consequently, impaired mental and physical health.
As access to nature is not yet officially designated as a human right, urbanisation has been allowed to proceed in an often reckless, biophobic manner. And living in an area of continuous urban fabric contributes to innumerable afflictions. A lack of local greenery has been linked to mental illness, cognitive impairment, higher crime rates, shorter life spans and a number of serious health conditions.
Unsurprisingly, nature deprivation is a social and environmental inequality, affecting marginalised groups disproportionately. Wealthier, whiter urban neighbourhoods tend to be leafier – with well-funded parks and large private gardens – whereas BAME and lower-income households are generally concentrated in areas where access to green space is limited. To put it into context, children from more deprived backgrounds are 9X less likely to have access to nature than their more privileged counterparts. Yet it is precisely these marginalised communities who need nature’s tonic most. If health is wealth, the current distribution of urban green space is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. An injection of plant life can help redress these socio-economic gaps: a study in Toronto, Canada found that adding 11 more trees per block can provide residents with health benefits comparable to what they’d get if they earned $20,000 more a year.
The inequality of nature deprivation demands an active intervention for social justice. The UN must hold the world’s governments accountable for maintaining a minimum level of natural space within populated areas by enshrining access to nature as an inalienable human right.
The time is now.
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What are human rights?
Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, political views, or any other marker of difference. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination. You can find more information here.
The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights comprises a broad range of 30 internationally accepted rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. You can find a summary here.
What role does the United Nations play?
The United Nations is responsible for creating and supervising a comprehensive body of human rights law: a universal and internationally protected code to which all nations can subscribe and all people aspire. International human rights law, including the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, lays down the obligations of governments to act in certain ways, to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.
Has the United Nations recognised the importance connection to nature in any other way?
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals presuppose the importance of human connection to nature, without yet recognising it explicitly as a human right. Making access to nature a human right is not only consistent with, but reinforced and supported by, many of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Good Health & Wellbeing, Reduced Inequalities and Sustainable Cities.
Similarly, its Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment discusses human rights in relation to inhabited environments, without recognising the importance of access to nature in itself. The principles skirt the topic, with principles including imperatives to “avoid undertaking or authorising actions with environmental impacts that interfere with the full enjoyment of human rights” (we argue that nature deprivation should fall under this) and to “establish and maintain substantive environmental standards that are non-discriminatory, non-retrogressive and otherwise respect, protect and fulfil human rights” (which we believe should preclude environmental inequality and nature deprivation).
What will change as a result of this petition’s success?
Governments and local authorities will have to proactively consider citizens’ access to nature when developing new urban environments (green town planning and architecture, in particular social housing) and reactively adapt any current urban areas that do not meet this requirement (depaving and rewilding). They will also have to consider access to nature at an individual level, ensuring no one gets left behind. This will reduce environmental inequality and increase quality of life for human beings around the world.
A further desirable outcome is that ‘time in nature’ joins the ‘five a day’ of fruit and vegetables and regular exercise as official health advice from the World Health Organisation.
What about conservation areas?
This petition aims for every human being to have access to a nearby natural environment, not to every natural environment. We don't suggest that every natural environment should become accessible to every human being – natural spaces under special protection would rightly remain so.
Where can I find more information?
For all sources of information cited in this petition and more, go to natureisahumanright.earth/facts
How can I support this petition?
First, sign and share with as many people as you can. To get involved as a champion of the campaign, or to request campaign materials, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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