The survey says: ‘keep hands off our nature’ and ‘government, take your responsibility’. Video: Wageningen University & Research
We find it important to be surrounded by greenery, whether it is our gardens, a city park or a nature area. Especially during the Covid pandemic. But what do we do as individuals to protect nature? Does the government take enough responsibility? And are there enough benches for us when we go for a walk in a park or the countryside? Answers to these questions can be found in the sixth edition of the Nature Engagement Survey.
Every four years, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) carries out a survey to find out how the Dutch feel about nature. The 2021 survey shows that we find nature at least as important as we did in 2017. And far more people visit nature areas ‘very frequently’. Tineke de Boer and Arjen Buijs — researchers at Wageningen Environmental Research — talk about changing policies on nature, small-scale citizens’ initiatives and the probable effect of the Covid pandemic.
Why does WUR carry out a Nature Engagement Survey?
Buijs: “The first survey was held in 1996. This was about six years after the government had formulated a new policy aimed at introducing more nature. Policymakers approached this from an ecological perspective, geared to maintaining biodiversity. So in 1990 the National Ecological Network (NEN) was introduced — a network of existing and new nature areas. This was based on input mainly from biologists, landscape specialists and farmers, but not the general public. At the time, the policy was widely criticized for this neglect of the requirements of ordinary people. Some staff within the then Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Fisheries also cautiously started to voice such opinions. A little later, WUR was tasked with carrying out the engagement survey.”
People find it important to conserve nature for future generations. Photo: Ronald Wilfred Jansen / Shutterstock
So how does the general public feel about nature?
De Boer: “People have found nature important from 1996 onwards. They mainly give reasons such as ‘nature is healthy’ and ‘for recreation’ but they find it equally important to conserve nature for future generations. In 2021, 90 per cent of the respondents agreed with the statement that ‘we owe it to our children to protect nature’. Indeed, measures to protect and conserve nature enjoy massive support.”
Far more people said they had visited a nature area more often in the past year, an unprecedented 31 per cent of respondents. So there is clearly a lot of demand for this. A majority find the amount of nature in the Netherlands and in the vicinity of their home enough or more than enough. However, when looking at the period since 2013, we see a decline in the score for the amount of nature. In other words, increasing numbers of people feel more nature is required.”
If you look at the figures over the years, all of a sudden we found nature less important in 2013. Why was that?
Buijs: “That was just after the economic crisis. If you asked people to consider more roads to stop congestion versus nature preservation, the balance swung the other way. At the time, there were a lot of changes taking place in society and politics. Many tasks were devolved to the provincial authorities and this was accompanied by major cuts.”
Transport being seen as more important than nature in 2013 was a one-off, a consequence of the economic crisis
Even the State Secretary for Nature Management at the time, Henk Bleker, thought that nature conservation should not be at the expense of agriculture and the economy. But the drop was temporary, and in 2017 nature once again received priority over the road network. However, the comparison between nature and housing shows a reverse trend. While nature is still thought to be more important than housing construction, the number of people who find housing more important has grown in 2021.”
The Draagvlakenquête Natuur (Support Survey Nature) is conducted every four years to gauge the Dutch opinion on nature policy. The survey shows that we have an increasing need for nature in our surroundings, which has only increased because of covid. Amelisweerd, a green estate in Utrecht, for example, has become so crowded that people bother each other. Yet even though nature policies currently don't match the need for more greenery, WUR researcher Arjen Buijs certainly has discovered some gems. (UK subtitles available in video)
The Covid pandemic has huge economic consequences, yet nature retains its position of priority; why?
Buijs: “We’re living in different times, in which climate change and biodiversity loss are getting a lot of attention. We’re bombarded on a daily basis with news about extreme weather and melting icecaps. Both politicians and society at large are increasingly convinced that something needs to be done to keep the planet liveable. Nature is ‘benefiting’ from all this.”
What will be done with these conclusions?
Buijs: “They will go to the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, given that the policymakers are the main clients for this research. They certainly take the findings seriously, although more should really be done with the results. That is because the main messages from the survey are ‘keep your hands off our nature’ and ‘the government should take responsibility’ – because the general public thinks that of all the stakeholders that have an impact on nature, the government should take the lead. Which means more greenery in urban areas, more playing fields and more small-scale agriculture.”
People want more benches to enjoy nature. Photo: Shutterstock
More people contribute to nature
Of all parties involved, it’s the government that should take the lead, according to the public
Do people also take action if nature is under threat?
Buijs: “Sometimes they do. Take the campaign against the government’s plans to widen the A27 motorway, which would harm the Amelisweerd nature area near Utrecht. That resistance grew spontaneously among the local population, and there are other such examples too.”
Why is the ministry not listening to their message?
Buijs: “You do see a divide in Amelisweerd between what the residents want and the government’s plans. But I personally expect all these citizen campaigns will eventually have an effect, as the process has been delayed to such an extent that it is likely to be shelved for good.”
The government should listen more intently to what the public is saying, namely ‘protect nature’. Because the government can definitely do more. While we are beyond the low point of the Rutte I coalition (2010–2012, ed.) when the cuts in nature policy expenditure reached 40 per cent, we are nowhere near at the level required to achieve our own objectives for nature conservation.
Initiatives such as nature education in schools also suffered, but now the general public think we should be investing again in such things.”
Covid has let large numbers discover how beautiful the Netherlands is. We need to hold onto that
People have learned to appreciate nature more over the past four years. Photo: Gabriela Beres / Shutterstock
Doesn’t the survey give a somewhat distorted picture? The results show that highly educated white Dutch people find nature more important than ethnic minorities with a lower level of education, for example.
Buijs: “The sample is representative and it mainly shows that there are differences in how various groups perceive nature. Policy should be more sensitive to these differences. While ethnic minorities are less likely to visit nature areas, they still find urban greenery important.”
Another interesting finding is that we want more benches to sit on.
De Boer: “That’s right. People did say that. Not so surprising: nature is lovely not just to walk in but also to look at and savour in the company of others.”
Buijs: “Might Covid be the reason that we want more benches? That’s possible. It’ difficult to determine the precise effect of the pandemic in the survey as we ask people about a four-year period, which includes the period before the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. But it’s clear that we have learned to appreciate nature more, partly as an escape from all that sitting at home. We also discovered en masse how attractive the Netherlands is because we were unable to travel abroad. We need to hold onto this.”