United Nations: Make Access to Nature a Human Right

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We are calling on the United Nations to recognise access to nature as a human right.

We now know – beyond doubt – that having access to green space is essential to our wellbeing. It should be a right, not a luxury.

 

WE NEED NATURE

Homo sapiens' wellbeing depends on being in our natural habitat as much as any other species'. Despite the recent innovations that (in some ways) make us independent from the natural world, evolution works slowly, and our stubborn genes haven’t kept up. After spending 99% of our history evolving in wild surroundings, human minds and bodies are still adapted to functioning and feeling their best when in a natural, green environment.

This is proven, time and time again, in studies spanning disciplines and continents. A mushrooming body of evidence – from thousands of experts – supports what many of us intuitively feel: nature is a panacea.

In terms of our mental health, spending time in nature is an instant mood-lifter, stress-reducer, anger-assuager and confidence-booster. Perhaps more surprisingly, it can relieve – and even prevent – debilitating mental illness, reducing the need for anti-depressants and the incidence of panic attacks. Nature contact 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’ works its magic through every somatic structure – including our respiratory, cardiovascular, hormonal and immune systems – making us measurably fitter and more resilient to illness. Office staff take fewer sick days when they’re surrounded by houseplants, and hospital patients actually recover faster if they can see tree foliage from their beds.

Given how essential green space is to our mental and physical health – the very foundations of our quality of life – access to it should be a right for all.

 

BUT WE'RE INCREASINGLY DEPRIVED OF IT

“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 1/2 the world's human beings – some 4.3 billion of us – live in urban areas. By 2050, the UN predict it will be 3 in 5. This accelerating, biophobic urbanisation has major implications for global wellbeing: 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. 

Already 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.

 

ESPECIALLY THOSE MARGINALISED BY SOCIETY

Nature deprivation is a social and environmental inequality, most likely to affect the less privileged communities. In the industrialised West, wealthier, whiter urban neighbourhoods are leafier – with high-quality parks and large private gardens – whereas BAME and lower-income households have limited access to green space.

In the UK's most economically deprived areas, residents are nearly 6X less likely to describe their area as "green", and children are 9X less likely to have access to green space, compared to those in affluent areas. Black British households are 2.4X more likely to not have a garden, and nearly 4X more likely than to have no outdoor space, than white ones.

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, through the free health service nature provides. 

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.

 

DESPITE ALL THIS, THE UNITED NATIONS DOES NOT (YET) RECOGNISE ACCESS TO NATURE AS A HUMAN RIGHT

Why is this? The United Nations (UN) created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, in the wake of World War II. Addressing the pressing concerns of the day, it enshrines 30 fundamental human rights – including access to work and education, and freedom from torture and slavery – that are as relevant today as they were then. It does not, however, mention nature or the environment. Topics that have, in the seven decades since the UDHR was created, risen to the forefront of humanitarian concern.

Since 1948, green spaces have disappeared at an alarming rate (both near and far, with over 1/2 of Britain's ancient woodland deforested in this time), and people have flocked from the countryside to cities (70 years ago, 2/3 of the world lived rurally). 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.

So, what can we do? To protect present and future generations’ emotional, cognitive, physical and social 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.

 

Please sign and share this vital petition today.

Every signature counts – and we’re counting on yours.

Thank you.

 

 

FAQs

For sources and to discover even more incredible benefits of nature, check out the campaign's Resources.

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 hello@natureisahumanright.earth

You can also follow us on social at: Twitter @natureisaright • Instagram @natureisahumanright • Facebook facebook.com/natureisahumanright