US nature policies and human health — what we can learn from Sweden
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In the wake of the recent truck attack that killed four people in Stockholm, Swedish citizens struggle to process the senseless act of violence. The confession of an Uzbek man may lead some to call for scrutiny of Sweden’s open-door immigration policy. But another Swedish policy is sacrosanct, and may in fact foster Swedes’ health, healing and resilience following the recent national tragedy. That policy is Allemansrätten.

Allemansrätten, which literally translates to “everyone’s right,” or the right of public access means that in Sweden, people have the right to access the natural environment, whether the land is publicly or privately owned.

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According to Allemansrätten (versions of which exist in other countries too), it is permissible to hike, camp, cycle, swim, pick wild berries and flowers, and collect mushrooms, even on private property. Of course, visitors must be respectful of the property and its owners — stay on paths, don’t come close to the house, and ask permission if you want to camp in the same location for more than one night, and certainly do not cut down trees, start fires, or help yourself to garden produce.

 

A decade or so ago, I had a firsthand experience of Allemansrätten when I organized a 10 day bike tour of southern Sweden. We started at my friends’ house in Stockholm where we reassembled our bikes, purchased food, and packed our panniers. We then took the train – along with our bikes — south of Stockholm where we began the adventure.

We pedaled 120-160 km each day — through thick forests, past spectacularly beautiful lakes, along the famous Göta canal, which links Sweden’s west coast to its east. Allemansrätten meant that we could bicycle until dusk (which, in Sweden in June, is past 10 pm) and camp when we found an appealing spot or were too beat to continue. We alternated nights of camping with stays in Sweden’s excellent and affordable hostels.

Allemansrätten may seem alien to Americans, but in fact the Public Trust Doctrine, which stipulates that the sovereign holds land in trust for public use, dates back centuries and was a tenant of early U.S. law. Fragments of similar (though not controversy-free) policies speckle our more recent history, particularly with respect to the coasts.

For example, the Texas Open Beaches law of 1959 defined all coastal land below the vegetation line to be owned by the state and open for public use. Today, states vary in their interpretation of the Public Trust Doctrine. Organizations such as the Trust for Public Lands advocate for the protection and access of public lands but do not address matters of access to private land. 

Nature access policies have a lot to do with health. A growing body of research evidence indicates that nature benefits human health and well-being. Time in nature restores cognitive functioning and enhances attentional capacity. In one study, for example, participants completed a memory task and then performed a mentally-fatiguing task before they took either a nature walk or an urban walk. Following the walk, participants completed the memory task again. Those who had taken the naturewalk improved significantly; those who took the urban walk did not. Nature is linked to both physical and mental health. Nature bolsters resilience in the face of stress, enhances cognitive functioning, nurtures neighborhood social ties.

Nature isn’t only good for adults, time in nature helps kids to cope with stressors, to focus their attention, and to be physically active. Nature access is also linked to lower rates of myopia, and reduced symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. By getting people outdoors in nature, Allemansrätten and similar policies can contribute to human health and well-being, in times of crisis and grief, and every day.

Shouldn’t we all be able to access the natural environment — to swim in the ocean, to hike in the woods, to relish a beautiful view? In the United States today, we have growing disparities in income and in health.

The increase in chronic health issues disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities — children and adults alike. Remarkably, these health disparities are mirrored by, and arguably exacerbated by disparities in nature access. Low income communities tend to have fewer street trees, fewer per capita square feet of park space, and less-safe playgrounds.

Ensuring access to nature is not a panacea for the growing socio-economic and racial inequities in this country nor is it a substitute for healthcare access, living in community with clean air and clean water, having a supportive social network, living in a place where daily life activities are not thwarted by the threat of crime or violence.

Moreover, none of these things are a panacea for the fundamental and pervasive injustice of poverty. And yet, policies to allow nature access and to encourage everyone to spend time outdoors can be one small measure toward public health and health equity. In fact, epidemiological evidence from England suggests that in communities with nearby green space, income-based disparities in morbidity and mortality are significantly dampened, compared to disparities in less green neighborhoods.

As Swedes mourn recent events in Stockholm, they will no doubt draw upon one of their nation’s greatest resiliency resources: the natural environment. In the United States, we too might recognize nature’s restorative potential and advocate for equitable access.

Nancy Wells is an environmental psychologist whose research focuses on the influences of the built and natural environment on human health. She is a faculty member in the Department of Design & Environmental Analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University and is a 2017 Public Voices Fellow.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.