Sustainability Science

, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 1375–1388 | Cite as

Human–nature connectedness as a ‘treatment’ for pro-environmental behavior: making the case for spatial considerations

  • Kathleen KlanieckiEmail author
  • Julia Leventon
  • David J. Abson
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Concepts, Methodology, and Knowledge Management for Sustainability Science


The degree to which an individual feels connected to the natural world can be a positive predictor of pro-environmental behavior (PEB). This has led to calls to ‘reconnect to nature’ as a ‘treatment’ for PEB. What is not clear is the relationship between where one feels connected to nature and where one acts pro-environmentally. We propose that integrating spatial scale into the conceptualization of these constructs will provide insights into how different degrees of connectedness influence pro-environmental behavior. We discuss trends towards a spatial understanding of human–nature connectedness (HNC) and introduce three archetypes that highlight scalar relationships between scale of connectedness and scale of pro-environmental behavior: (1) equal interactions, (2) embedded interactions, and (3) extended interactions. We discuss potential policy and practice implications of taking a spatially explicit approach to HNC–PEB research, and propose a research agenda for investigating these scalar relationships that can inform nature as a ‘treatment’ intervention.


Nature connectedness Pro-environmental behavior Local-to-global scales Nature as treatment Sustainability 


The environmental challenges facing the planet are rooted, at least in part, in unsustainable human behavior (Vlek and Steg 2007; Klöckner 2013). Identifying variables that underpin behavioral decisions is therefore a crucial element in understanding and transforming behaviors for sustainability. One such variable, human–nature connectedness (HNC)—the cognitive, emotional, spiritual and biophysical linkages to places, landscapes and ecosystems that are not completely dominated by humans (see Ives et al. 2017)—has been positively correlated with pro-environmental behaviors, attitudes, and intentions (Kals et al. 1999; Mayer and Frantz 2004; Schultz et al. 2004). Pro-environmental behaviors (PEB) are those behaviors that seek to minimize negative impacts on the environment (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002). While humans have an innate connection to nature and an inherent affinity for the natural world (Wilson 1984), technological advances, urbanization, and globalization have reduced direct interactions with nature and led to societies that are disconnected from nature psychologically, materially, and physically (Miller 2005; Cumming et al. 2014). Moreover, biophysical disconnectedness, driven by industrialization and global trade flows, has obscured the environmental impact of our behaviors (Dorninger et al. 2017). These disconnections have led to humans and nature being increasingly treated as separate entities (Folke et al. 2011). The growing disconnect from nature has been hypothesized to lead to a reduction of respect and appreciation of nature, which may breed apathy toward environmental issues (Schultz 2002).

Given the potential benefits of HNC and the problems that arise with loss of such connections, scholars have called for societies and individuals to ‘reconnect with nature’ or ‘reconnect with the biosphere’ as a means towards sustainability transformation (Pyle 2003; Abson et al. 2017). One potential avenue for such transformative change is to conceptualize HNC as a ‘treatment’ that can influence individual or societal attitudes and behaviors towards the environment (Ives et al. 2018). Due to growing disconnectedness from the natural world, individuals may not connect to nature nor receive the full benefits of nature exposure without targeted interventions designed to facilitate connectedness (Shanahan et al. 2015). Thus, programs and policies (i.e., treatments) might become the default way to connect individuals to nature. However, while conceptualizing HNC as a treatment is an established idea in relation to physical and psychological health and well-being (for a review, see Hartig et al. 2014), it is less well-established in relation to PEB. We argue this is, in part, because of difficulties in conceptualizing and quantifying the relationship between the multifaceted notions of HNC and PEB. Therefore, as societies rely to a greater degree on interventions and institutions to connect people to nature, more attention must be paid to the design and implementation of such treatments.

While higher reported degrees of HNC were shown to serve as a foundation for PEB (Bruni et al. 2008, 2012; Nisbet et al. 2009a; Verges and Duffy 2010; Hoot and Friedman 2011; Geng et al. 2015), the question remains as to which ‘degrees’ of HNC influence PEB. ‘Degree’ is used here to denote both the type of HNC and the relative strengths of those connections. Studies reporting positive correlations demonstrate the potential of HNC as a treatment for PEB change, yet conceptual vagueness regarding the relationship between degrees of HNC and PEB limit the applicability as a solution to sustainability issues. More clarity is needed to understand the richness of HNC and the interplay of degrees of HNC and PEB. We argue that one key facet of ‘reconnecting with nature’ as a treatment for PEB change is to understand the relationship between where individuals feel connected to nature and where individuals act pro-environmentally.

Both HNC and PEB can be considered to be multi-scalar constructs. That is, HNC can extend across spatial boundaries, from experiential connections to local landscapes (e.g., Freeman et al. 2012) through to philosophical and emotional connections to the global environment (e.g., Perkins 2010). PEB has a scalar dimension in both the environmental impact of the behavior and the location where the behavior occurs. However, HNC has generally been thought of either as localized and place-based (e.g., Cammack et al. 2011; Soga et al. 2016) or as a rather generalized notion having no specific scale (e.g., Bruni and Schultz 2010; Verges and Duffy 2010). Similarly, PEBs are often conceptualized as either specific, place-based behaviors (e.g., Raymond et al. 2011; Davis and Carter 2014) or as a set of broadly interchangeable, scale-independent actions or intentions (e.g., Davis et al. 2009; Scannell and Gifford 2010). Therefore, the notion of spatial scale is a potentially useful concept for clarifying applications of HNC as a treatment for PEB.

In this article, we briefly discuss the evolution of research on HNC and discuss current conceptualizations of scale in the HNC and PEB literature. We propose that a distinction between spatial grain (i.e., where HNC or PEB is observed) and spatial extent (i.e., the area over which HNC or PEB occurs) may bring greater conceptual clarity regarding spatial scale of HNC and PEB. We then introduce and define three archetypical HNC–PEB interactions for conceptualizing the relationship of scale of connectedness and scale of behavior: equal interactions, embedded interactions, and extended interactions. Lastly, we present a new research agenda for investigating the proposed scalar relationships and discuss the potential benefits and implications for policy and practice of taking a spatially explicit approach to HNC as a treatment for sustainable behavior change.

Emergence of HNC–PEB research

Increased awareness of changes to duration, frequency, and type of nature interactions and experiences prompted scholars to study and publish works on how and why societies are disconnecting from nature. Pyle (1993) introduced the phrase ‘extinction of experience’ and ignited a strand of literature devoted to understanding our disconnection with nature and its ramifications (for a review, see Soga and Gaston 2016). Miller (2005) argued that urbanization and decreased time outdoors has led to reduced exposure to nature and, when contact occurs, it is mainly structured activities within managed habitats. The decline of time in nature has been termed ‘nature-deficit disorder’ to account for numerous social and ecological problems associated with decreasing contact with nature (Louv 2005). This lack of connection impacts the value individuals place on nature (Wells and Lekies 2006) and the willingness to protect and conserve nature (Zhang et al. 2014b; Collado et al. 2015).

Over the last 20 years, there has been an increasing focus on revealing the correlations between different degrees of HNC (or disconnectedness) and PEB. Schultz et al. (2004) developed a modified Implicit Association Test for measuring implicit connections with nature that was positively correlated with environmental attitudes and concern. Likewise, the Connectedness to Nature Scale, “a measure designed to tap an individual’s affective, experiential connection to nature,” significantly predicted PEB (Mayer and Frantz 2004). Further psychometric scales were developed to quantify various dimensions and aspects of HNC such as emotional inclinations toward nature (Kals et al. 1999), sentiments and attitudes towards nature (Dunlap et al. 2000), commitment to the environment (Davis et al. 2009), and love and care for nature (Perkins 2010) (for a review, see Restall and Conrad 2015). Additionally, the proximity of nature (e.g., Ballouard et al. 2011; Nisbet and Zelenski 2011), the proper ‘dose’ of nature (e.g., Barton and Pretty 2010; Shanahan et al. 2016), the location of nature experiences (e.g., Schultz and Tabanico 2007; Bruni et al. 2008), and the role of direct vs. mediated nature experiences (e.g., Mayer et al. 2009; Duerden and Witt 2010; Arendt and Matthes 2016) have been investigated as potential influencing factors in the strength of HNC or its links to PEB.

Studies show that HNC is a dynamic construct which can be adjusted after a short period of time in nature (such as a 1 day educational program) (e.g., Kossack and Bogner 2012) and modified through educational programs or self-directed experiences (e.g., Ernst and Theimer 2011). Keniger et al. (2013) reviewed the literature and identified six settings where people and nature interact (indoor, urban, fringe, production landscape, wilderness, and specific species) and three types of human–nature interactions (indirect, incidental and intentional). Clayton et al. (2017) presented six dimensions of nature experiences: observing vs. interacting, consumptive vs. appreciative, self-directed vs. other-directed, separate vs. integrated, solitary vs. shared, and positive vs. negative. Other dimensions of HNC that have been explored include temporal elements (Mayer et al. 2009; Duffy and Verges 2010; Scannell and Gifford 2010), built environment dimensions (Maller et al. 2009; Davis and Gatersleben 2013), psychological measurements (McDonald et al. 2015), beauty features (Zhang et al. 2014a), and experiences (Cheng and Kuo 2015; Kil et al. 2015). The literature provides compelling arguments regarding why to connect individuals to nature and an increasing evidence base for the positive relationship between PEB outcomes and increasing degrees of HNC. However, it remains unclear how these connections and outcomes are mediated by geographical location, or scale. Therefore, we propose that improving the effectiveness of HNC as a treatment for PEB change requires integrating a degree of spatial thinking.

Applying a spatial lens to HNC as a treatment

Given the globalized and interconnected state of the planet and the scope of environmental problems, there is a growing appreciation for including scale into socio-ecological research (Schulze 2000). Applying spatial thinking to socio-ecological systems has been useful in defining boundaries, overcoming scale mismatches, and understanding relationships between concepts and actors (Cash et al. 2006; Cumming et al. 2006). Defining the appropriate scale for examining environmental issues is important. Scale is both socially constructed and defined and the chosen scale should be useful for the specific issues or phenomenon being researched (Cash and Moser 2000). Incorporating geographic thinking into complex socio-ecological relationships can be challenging, but doing so can enrich understanding of the situation and interactions within the system. Additionally, addressing the relationships and interactions between concepts across scales is crucial for addressing global environmental problems (Cash and Moser 2000).

Defining spatial relationships and the distinctions between local and global has been useful for refining our understanding of the ways in which humans view, interact and connect with the natural world. Significant work has been done to understand how individuals perceive and relate to environmental problems based on proximity or distance (Uzzell 2000). Construal level theory argues that what one perceives to be psychologically proximate or psychologically distant (psychological distance) can influence individual decision-making (Trope and Liberman 2010). Psychological distance has been an especially useful construct for research on individual responses and reactions to climate change (Scannell and Gifford 2013; Brügger et al. 2016). This theory may also influence the ways in which individuals perceive their relationship with nature and where they are able to connect with nature, as construal level theory states that “the further away an object is from the present situation of a person, the more effort she has to make to construe it” (Brügger et al. 2016).

Recently, scholars have begun to recognize the role of spatial scale in HNC studies and trends towards spatially understood HNC have emerged (see Table 1 for an overview of current scale conceptualizations in the HNC literature). Scholars have made significant inroads towards understanding and mapping place attachment—the degree to which an individual feels an emotional connection to a place—(Jorgensen and Stedman 2011; Brown et al. 2015), exploring sense of place at various geographic scales (Lewicka 2010; Devine-Wright 2013; Ardoin 2014; Zia et al. 2014), and spatially mapping emotional connections to nature (Davis et al. 2016). Research also shows that individuals experience varied attachments to place at different spatial scales (i.e., local-to-global, across multiple scales, or detached at all scales), which influences environmental concern and willingness to take action (Brügger et al. 2015; Devine-Wright et al. 2015). However, a recent review of the HNC literature found that only 4% of papers attempted spatial mapping and called for future research on how HNC constructs might be represented spatially (Restall and Conrad 2015).

Table 1

Current conceptualizations of scale in human–nature connectedness (HNC) literature



Local; place-specific

Connections to local or spatially proximate nature. Primarily experiential connections to nature. May be mediated by place attachment (e.g., Beery and Wolf-Watz 2014)

Regional; landscape

Connections to nature within a region. Connections may be built around political (the nature of a region), ecological (the landscape), or topographic (watershed) boundaries. May be mediated by ‘values home range’ (e.g., Brown et al. 2015)


Connections to nature of a nation or state. May be mediated by patriotism, national identity, or cultural values of nature (e.g., Devine-Wright et al. 2015)


Connections to large-scale swaths of nature. Sense of interrelated with nature at many scales and at many places. May be mediated by global identity or global belonging (e.g., Lee et al. 2015)

All nature; undefined

General sense of connectedness or oneness with the natural world that is not characterized by specific places. May be mediated by worldviews or philosophical or spiritual ideologies about nature (e.g., Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014)


Connections with a specific species or type of nature. These connections transcend scale, as they are based on ecological features. May be mediated by human attitudes towards biodiversity (e.g., Martín-López et al. 2007)

In addition to a gap in understanding of spatial expressions of HNC constructs, current conceptualizations and explorations of HNC lack spatial diversity. Devine-Wright (2013) points out that much of the HNC literature has focused on the local level and ignored the global scale, even though individuals may experience place-related attachments and identities at several scales. As well, a review of the HNC literature found that most papers concentrate on individual connectedness at locals scales and often leave ‘nature’ undefined (Ives et al. 2017). Few studies examine HNC at intermediate scales such as regional (e.g., Ardoin 2014) or how HNC is expressed over multiple scales. Despite increasing interest in the role of spatial scale in the HNC literature, the notion of scale captures a continuum from ‘local’ to ‘global’ as well as a continuum of the spatial specificity of HNC from experiential connections to a specific place, to cognitive or philosophical connections to unspecified nature (Table 1). Such conceptualizations are useful for capturing the diversity of HNC, but do not provide a clear distinction between extent and specificity. In an attempt to provide a differentiated and consistent notion of scales of HNC, we draw on characteristics of scale used extensively in the field of ecology. While it has been argued that there are potential pitfalls in using ecological concepts to describe social phenomena (e.g., Reed and Peters 2004), we do so to provide a more nuanced understanding of scale than the commonly used notions of ‘fine’ and ‘broad scale’ generally found in the HNC and PEB literature. In the ecological sciences, scale is generally conceptualized in terms of two characteristics: extent is the area over which a phenomenon occurs or is studied, and grain is the size over which individual expressions of the phenomena occur or at which those expressions are observed (e.g., Kotliar and Wiens 1990; Turner 1990). For example, the grain of an agricultural land cover map might be 1 ha (the average field size), while the map may have an extent of 1000 km2 (the size of the landscape in which those land cover patterns occur). We take grain as analogous to spatial specificity of HNC (i.e., its location or place of occurrence) and extent as spatial ‘reach’ of such connections (see Table 2). Grain and extent are not intended to describe HNC or PEB, but rather specify the spatial occurrence of such social phenomena. We believe that conceptualizing the scale of HNC on a continuum from local-to-global extents and from fine to coarse grain spatial specificity, while not entirely problem free, provides a useful distinction not yet clearly expressed in the literature.

Table 2

Examples of the extent and grain of different human–nature connectedness (HNC)


Small extent connections

Large extent connections

Fine grain connections

E.g., local experiences of nature; place attachment to specific local landscape features; biophysical attachments of subsistence farmers

E.g., multiple place attachments across large geographical extents; emotional attachments to iconic species; teleconnected biophysical connections of industrialized farmers

Coarse grain connections

E.g., regional cultural identities; cultural landscape connections; broader scale place attachment

E.g., philosophical sense of oneness to all nature; cognitive understandings of large-scale social-ecological functions

Scale in PEB literature

The ways in which PEB has been studied and conceptualized varies greatly. PEB are often operationalized using Likert-type scales, which has resulted in widely reproducible and generalizable results, though at the cost of measuring place-specific behaviors (Larson et al. 2015) and the most environmentally significant behaviors (Gatersleben et al. 2002). One-dimensional measures of PEB provide insights on relevant and common behaviors, though fail to recognize the heterogeneous nature of PEB (Ertz et al. 2016) or their spatial specificity and extent. Attempts at overcoming these gaps have occurred, with scholars linking place attachment and place-specific PEBs (e.g., Halpenny 2010; Ramkissoon et al. 2013a) and HNC and realm-specific behaviors (e.g., food consumption, see Schosler et al. 2013). However, to our knowledge, there have been few efforts in the HNC literature to classify and measure PEBs based on grain or extent, or analogous spatial classifications.

Conceptualizing scale in relation to PEB is complicated by the need to differentiate between the scale of behaviors (e.g., individual or group action) and the scale of environmental impact of those behaviors (Gatersleben et al. 2002). The scale of PEB is a consequence of both the scale of behavior and the scale of impact. In this context, grain is more relevant when considering the scale of behavior; we can distinguish between a behavior taken by an individual (fine grain) or by a society or community (coarse grain). Extent becomes more important when considering the scale of impact. A PEB can have an impact over just a local area, or have a global impact, or have both. Weaving grain into the scale of behavior, and extent into the scale of impact, will be most useful for nature as treatment interventions that target specific environmental problems. However, this means that from here on, we will disregard coarse grain PEB because nature as treatment interventions are primarily targeted at individuals, whereas coarse grain behaviors are those instigated by a community or society as a whole and therefore tend to be institutionalized, either informally or formally (i.e., through legislation).

For thinking about the extent of impact of PEB, we propose groupings from place-specific impacts to global impacts. In adopting this approach, we must make assumptions about the scale of impact of PEB. Impact of PEB can be classified by either the individual’s intended impact of the behavior undertaken (i.e., intent-oriented research) or by the direct environmental impact of PEB (i.e., impact-oriented research) (Stern 2000). We acknowledge that a precise measurement of the environmental impact of each PEB is challenging (and beyond the scope of this paper), as PEBs have dispersed impacts, cumulative impacts, delayed impacts, and impacts over various geographic scales. Global ecological processes mean that a behavior with a strong local environmental impact (e.g., car idling contributing to local air quality) could still contribute to large-scale environmental problems (e.g., car emissions contributing to global climate change). Furthermore, behaviors can be interlinked; an individual can adopt a PEB that raises awareness of an environmental issue that then prompts another individual to adopt a PEB that directly targets that issue. We argue that classifying PEBs according to the extent of their direct or primary intended environmental impact—while a simplification of the complex nature of the spatial impact of PEBs—is useful for relating such behaviors to the spatial scale of HNC that (potentially) promotes such behavior. We present such a classification in Table 3.

Table 3

Categories of pro-environmental behavior (PEB) by grain and extent


Small extent (impact)

Large extent (impact)

Fine grain (individual behavior)

E.g., picking litter to clean a local beach

E.g., avoiding air travel to mitigate climate change

Coarse grain (societal behavior)

E.g., plastic bag ban to reduce local litter

E.g., carbon tax to mitigate climate change

Spatial patterns in the HNC–PEB relationship: three archetypes

Interactions between scales of HNC and of PEB

As our understanding of the interplay between HNC and PEB has grown, research gaps in our understanding of the spatial interplay between these constructs remains. We focus our attention on one critique: that current HNC conceptualizations are too overarching to be applicable in the study or application of nature as a treatment for shaping or constraining PEB. Beery and Wolf-Watz (2014) state that failing to specify characteristics and location of HNC has kept the concept elusive, unplaced, and unhelpful. Jorgensen (2010) argues that these conceptualizations fail to recognize that these constructs “have spatial and physical referents that need to be made explicit.” We argue that measuring HNC in this generalized way leads to generalized findings and correlations that, while interesting for academic advancement of the field, have limited applicability for nature as a treatment practice.

We challenge the existing HNC and PEB conceptualizations and suggest that richer interactions, mediated by spatial scale, exist between the two constructs. To facilitate this thinking, we discuss archetypical patterns of HNC–PEB relationships present in the literature and propose three scalar interactions that further integrate spatial considerations into research on the ways in which HNC and PEB are linked. Following the archetype approach of Eisenack (2012), we define archetypes as recurrent patterns of interaction between factors that have distinct characteristics that occur in various situations with similar outcomes. The archetypes proposed in this paper call attention to scalar patterns identified in the HNC–PEB relationship and define three interactions that align with findings in the literature. Defining archetypes is a useful tool for classifying scalar relationships between HNC and PEB, as archetypes provide generalizations that can be tested and refined through empirical research and illustrate patterns that can inform policy and practice (Eisenack 2012; Oberlack et al. 2016).

The three archetypes, which we refer to as ‘equal interactions’, ‘embedded interactions’ and ‘extended interactions’, (see Fig. 1) illustrate scalar relationships between the grain and extent of HNC and PEB. These archetypes are a conceptual depiction of the various spatial representations of individual nature connectedness and the corresponding affect on PEB adoption or intention. Each archetype presumes HNC as the independent variable and PEB as the dependent variable, reflecting the typical way these two constructs are most often related in the literature (e.g., Mayer and Frantz 2004; Halpenny 2010). As discussed earlier, literature has shown that individuals express multiple place attachments and experience different types of connections to nature. As such, the archetypes proposed in this paper are not mutually exclusive, nor do they represent a typology where every interaction is able to be explained by, or classified in, a single archetype (Eisenack 2012). Rather, these archetypes bring attention to existing spatial relationships and condense them into three categories to provide clarity and structure for considering the HNC–PEB relationship. Individuals can express HNC–PEB relationships consistent with each archetype and interventions could be designed to target one or more spatial interaction.
Fig. 1

Conceptualization of three archetypical interactions between scale of human–nature connectedness (ranging from locally to globally connected) and scale of pro-environmental behavior (ranging from local-to-global environmental impact)

While the three archetypes apply spatial thinking to enhance our understanding of HNC–PEB relationships, there are HNC–PEB relationships that are unable to be described or categorized spatially. For instance, there are degrees of HNC that cannot be correlated with specific behavioral outcomes but rather with general changes in environmental attitudes or behavioral intentions. Interventions that aim for this general PEB outcome may employ strategies that build connectedness at various scales. There are also ‘scaleless’ connections, such as deep philosophical or spiritual connections to nature, which would be challenging to place along a nature connection extent from local-to-global or across multiple spatial grains. Furthermore, the archetypes do not account for degrees of connectedness that spur feelings of love or reverence (e.g., emotional attachments), though not the adoption of PEB.

Thus, the three archetypical interactions are a simplification of the complex relationship between HNC and PEB, which can be mediated by external and internal factors (e.g., attitudes and values, personal and group norms, costs and incentives, behavioral control; for a review, see Gifford and Nilsson 2014). The generalization of the archetypes is not designed to capture every dimension of this relationship, but rather to widen existing conceptualizations and provide concepts and questions for empirical exploration and practical application of scalar interactions. We define each archetype according to grain and extent and provide examples from scholarly literature and practical application that support the spatial direction in each interaction.

Archetype 1: equal interactions

‘Equal interactions’ (Fig. 1) are characterized by PEB and HNC that occur at the same grain and extent. Connectedness is generally experienced at finer grains, from small to large extents. Corresponding PEB is taken to create an impact at an extent aligned to the extent of the HNC. For example, individuals with connectedness to a local or spatially proximate environment (fine grain, small extent HNC) act pro-environmentally to conserve and protect that place (small extent PEB); individuals with connectedness to distant regions act to protect the flora and fauna of that region in situ or with distant behaviors such as donations (large extent PEB). This archetype suggests that interventions at any one scale of nature would encourage and promote PEB intentions or adoption at the same scale. In other words, a treatment designed to build connectedness to a local forest could prompt PEBs to protect and conserve this forest, whereas a campaign to build connectedness to arctic species would prompt PEBs to protect those species. This archetype aligns with existing ‘localist’ discourses about human–place relationships that argues individual value and act to protect what is spatially close (Devine-Wright 2013).

‘Equal interactions’ can be observed in several strands of literature that report findings consistent with this archetype. The most prominent is the place attachment literature, which shows that individuals who feel attached to a location will act to protect and care for that place (e.g., Scannell and Gifford 2010). Place attachment has been shown to predict place-related pro-environmental intentions (Halpenny 2010). Scholars suggest this relationship is due to individuals believing their behaviors play a role in improving local environmental quality (e.g., Walker et al. 2015). Evidence from other strands of HNC literature lends further support to the presence of ‘equal interactions’: gardeners with close connectedness to their gardens employ ecological gardening practices (Kiesling and Manning 2010), individuals with strong regional ties act pro-environmentally at the regional scale (Ardoin 2014), and individuals who visit national parks or protected areas are more likely to act to protect that place (Ramkissoon et al. 2012). Outdoor recreationists, such as hunters and birdwatchers, frequently engaged in conservation behaviors, but were less strongly associated with general PEBs (Cooper et al. 2015), suggesting PEBs have a spatial specificity that is linked to spatially relevant HNC. Much in the same way, students that were exposed to information about exotic species were more willing to protect exotic species than species in their local environments (Ballouard et al. 2011).

The ‘equal interactions’ archetype can be considered as the ‘default’ HNC–PEB relationship. For centuries, individuals built strong connections to their immediate environment where they worked and interacted with the land on a daily basis. These strong connections to the land helped foster a sense of responsibility and protection to keep the land viable and productive for future generations. Today, place-based nature interventions could foster these relationships. Nature excursions for families at a national park could be designed to foster a sense of connectedness to nature and a sense of responsibility to protect and care for the park. At larger extents, exposure to environmental issues can prompt care and concern for these places and subsequent PEB. This strategy is used by environmental NGOs (e.g., WWF; The Nature Conservancy) to build connectedness to distant, but specific, facets of nature as a means of prompting conservation behaviors at an extent that includes that location. Videos of orangutans being rescued from palm oil plantations and plush toys of charismatic megafauna are tools used to foster a sense of connectedness to distant ecosystems, which may lead to increased donations and conservation behaviors that support specific environmental concerns at that extent.

Archetype 2: embedded interactions

‘Embedded interactions’ (Fig. 1) are present when connectedness at coarser spatial grains is tied to PEB at relatively fine spatial extents. Individuals feel a generalized connectedness to nature (e.g., biomes, continents) or have a sense of connectedness to the entire natural world (coarse grain, large extent). However, due to degrees of behavioral agency or constraining factors at this grain of connectedness, individuals adopt PEBs that impact smaller extents. For example, individuals connected with rainforest ecosystems may feel unable to create meaningful change at that scale, so action is taken to conserve woodlands at the regional scale by planting native trees.

Studies have shown that national and global belonging is correlated with general measurements of PEB (Der-Karabetian et al. 2014). Walker et al. (2015) suggest that individuals with high degrees of global attachment or belonging adopt PEBs with a local impact as they view local environments as a microcosm of global environments. This archetype is also prominent in the popular phrases ‘Think Global, Act Local’ and ‘GLOCAL,’ which have been employed by academics, policy makers, and practitioners to encourage global citizenship paired with PEBs at more spatially proximate scales.

The ‘embedded interactions’ archetype is reflected most strongly in the work and outreach strategies of environmental advocacy groups. Individuals receive educational information about the environmental challenges facing the planet but are encouraged to take action at the local scale where they have the most impact. This tactic is also employed in environmental outreach such as documentaries or communication campaigns. For example, a documentary may highlight the unsustainability of the global industrialized food system, but end by urging viewers to adopt specific behaviors that can influence their local food systems, such as buying locally grown organic produce.

Building connectedness at coarser grains of nature has been facilitated by globalization. Exposure to natural products through global trade, information about unfamiliar biomes through television and internet, and increased abilities to travel to new ecosystems have all facilitated increased connectedness to nature at grains other than the most spatially proximate. Clayton et al. (2017) reason that as virtual, mediated, and simulated experiences of nature become more prevalent, they should be embraced as a tool for helping influence PEB adoption. One potential avenue of research is to examine if these newer methods of building connectedness are more effective at prompting PEB with small or large extent impacts.

Archetype 3: extended interactions

The ‘extended interactions’ (Fig. 1) archetype refers to fine grain and small extent connectedness that promotes PEBs with large extent impacts. This archetype highlights a growing sense of responsibility wherein individuals extend their care for nature to include protection of other ecosystems and biomes. Individuals experience connectedness to spatially proximate or spatially specific nature, which leads to an expanded sense of self and PEBs that impact larger extents than where the connectedness is observed.

Nature connectedness at fine grains and across small extents is likely built through frequent experiences with local nature. Wells and Lekies (2006) found that exposure to nature in childhood has a significant, positive association with a set of general PEBs as an adult. Qualitative studies on HNC also provide support for ‘extended interactions’ being present in HNC–PEB relationships. Interviews with environmentally minded individuals reveal that PEB stems from a sense of concern and care for nature that was built as a result of time spent in spatially proximate nature (e.g., Guiney and Oberhauser 2009; Krasny et al. 2014). Respondents built connectedness to nature at a local, fine grain, but feel a growing sense of citizenship and responsibility to protect nature around the globe through their lifestyle and consumption behaviors.

This archetype reflects the basis of the current literature on HNC interventions. Since studies first reported a positive relationship between HNC and PEB (see, Mayer and Frantz 2004), educators and practitioners have developed and implemented programs to get people out into nature. These programs connect individuals to local nature through experiential nature exposure (e.g., walks in the woods; bird watching; tree planting), with an aim of affecting PEB adoption. Similarly, this archetype is often used in environmental education and citizen science programs. Teaching and inspiring individuals about their local environments and promoting immersive experiences in nature can aid in the development of an environmental ethic that will inspire general PEBs (e.g., Cosquer and Raymond 2012; Richardson et al. 2016).

Applying a spatially informed HNC–PEB approach

Introducing three archetypical interactions (equal, embedded and extended) serves two purposes. First, the archetypes aid in the categorization and specification of HNC–PEB research. Applying grain and extent to existing conceptualizations of HNC provides a more nuanced way of understanding variances in where individuals feel connected to nature. Applying extent to existing conceptualizations of PEB provides a more nuanced understanding of where individuals act pro-environmentally. Second, the archetypes provide three scalar relationships to explore and validate through empirical testing and practical application. It is hoped that the introduction of these archetypical interactions will prompt further discussion on scale as a mediating factor in HNC–PEB relationships and provide opportunities for targeted application. Expanding the conceptualization and measurement of HNC and PEB to include spatial thinking will provide insights on why and where individuals act sustainably, and consequently help direct HNC as a treatment for PEB interventions.

Conceptual application

The three archetypical interactions introduced in this paper provide new insights on the HNC–PEB relationship by introducing grain and extent to clarify spatial relationships. As the proposed spatial interactions are mitigated by factors such as degree of connectedness, geographic location of individuals, and ability to connect to nature, additional insights will be gained by relating these archetypes to existing HNC frameworks. Relating our approach to existing models and frameworks provides richness to the scalar approach and assists in uncovering scalar relationships within and across existing conceptualizations of HNC.

For instance, Ives et al. (2018) describes five types of connection to nature: material, experiential, cognitive, emotional, and philosophical. Integrating our work on scalar interactions with this classification of HNC may reveal interactions between the five types of connection and the spatial scale over which these connections occur. Specifically, empirical exploration could observe variances in the spatial expression of each type of connectedness and report on links to specific PEBs. For instance, scholars interested in place attachment and emotional connectedness to place (e.g., Gosling and Williams 2010; Ramkissoon et al. 2013b) might investigate how these connections are linked to PEBs with impacts at extents greater than place-specific, while scholars interested in worldviews or philosophical connections (e.g., Hedlund-de Witt et al. 2014) might examine how these larger extent connections are linked to small extent PEBs. Integrating these approaches in future research may determine if the scale of HNC or the type of HNC plays a more prominent role in the adoption of PEB.

Additional insights could be gained by connecting our scalar interactions approach with Clayton et al’s. (2017) six continuous dimensions of nature experiences. Linking grain and extent of HNC with dimensions of nature experiences will bring clarity to our understanding of the relationship between where, how, and when individuals experience and connect to nature and where individuals act pro-environmentally. Connecting these two approaches may explain why self-directed experiences at the local scale, for instance, have similar or different PEB outcomes than self-directed experiences at a landscape scale. By doing so, there is also the potential to understand how changes in how individuals are experiencing nature (e.g., towards technology-based interactions and managed experiences) are leading to connectedness at increasingly greater extents. Explorations of the use of virtual nature, in particular, is a growing field (e.g., Ahn et al. 2016; Arendt and Matthes 2016) and these studies could be complimented with the inclusion of a scalar lens to investigate how virtual and mediated experiences in nature are linked to PEBs at specific extents. Additionally, there is uncertainty about which PEB outcomes are tied to connectedness at large grains and extents and if nature experiences and connections at this scale in fact lead to unsustainable behaviors (e.g., flying long-distances to visit iconic species in the wild or purchasing imported products with large embodied emissions).

Similarly, our approach provides an additional lens to examine the influence of time scales, such as duration and frequency of nature exposure, on the grain and extent of HNC. Zelenski et al. (2015) state that a single nature exposure can foster HNC and PEB, though this is more likely developed over time and after repeated experiences in nature. Drawing linkages between the frequency of exposure and the spatial scale of exposure can provide insights on when individuals adopt PEBs (e.g., short term or long term) and if this is tied to the scale of PEB impact. By relating these approaches, we can bring greater conceptual clarify to our understanding of how PEB outcomes differ when, for example, individuals are connected at fine grains for a short duration or a long duration or for multiple short durations over a longer period of time. This can shed light on whether short-term connections most frequently reflect ‘equal interactions’ whereas long-term connections reflect ‘expanding interactions’.

Lastly, our approach provides support for the argument that HNC can be levered as a tool for deep and meaningful change towards sustainability (e.g., Abson et al. 2017; Ives et al. 2018). Further conceptual thinking and empirical exploration based on the three archetypes may lead to more nuanced understandings of how degrees of HNC at different scales can be leveraged as a treatment for unsustainable lifestyles and the adoption of PEBs. Each archetype might represent different leverage points, ranging from shallow—easy to adopt, but unlikely to lead to deep sustainable changes—to deep—more challenging to adopt, but may lead to sustainability transformation (Meadows 1999). ‘Equal interactions’ might be most prevalent and easiest to promote, as individuals feel greater agency to act pro-environmentally at the grain they are connected to nature. These fine grain fine extent connections may be the easiest to foster and lead to adoption of the most convenient PEBs, but may not lead to deep transformational changes for sustainability. For these deeper systemic changes, ‘expanding interactions’ might prove to be the most effective HNC–PEB archetype to consider. In these instances, interventions and policies are employed with an aim of fostering connectedness at spatially proximate scales and deeply transforming attitudes and behaviors towards the planet as a whole. Furthermore, applying a scalar lens will draw greater attention to the relationship between reconnecting materially (e.g., Dorninger et al. 2017) and reconnecting psychologically (e.g., Mayer and Frantz 2004; Nisbet et al. 2009b), bridging the findings from these fields and shedding light on which type of reconnection leads to greater transformative PEB outcomes and deeper systemic change.

Practical application

Sustainability science is a practice-based science that relies on practical models for addressing real-world environmental challenges. In HNC studies, there is a need to make research and models more useful for policy makers and practitioners (Restall and Conrad 2015). In that context, our archetype approach is not intended for application as a theoretical model but rather as an approach for guiding applications of nature as a treatment. Current calls to ‘reconnect to nature’ are lacking consideration of spatial scale, which makes it difficult to plan for and predict PEB outcomes. A primary implication of this approach is that scalar thinking should be considered and integrated into the design of nature as a treatment intervention programs and policies. The three archetypes provide insights on where to connect individuals to nature for certain PEB outcomes and can serve as a planning approach for nature connectedness practitioners.

Building an understanding of the relationship between HNC and PEB at certain scales provides tangible guidance for practitioners on how and why to connect individuals to certain types or locations of nature. Practitioners must determine where to implement interventions and at what spatial scale they are attempting to build connectedness. As these decisions are guided by geographic location, available resources, and the purpose of the organization, understanding scalar interactions between HNC and PEB can help constrain and shape programs. The archetypes can provide two directions of guidance during the design of HNC treatments. First, the archetypes can aid in planning by providing a tool for looking ahead to anticipated PEB outcomes based on interventions planned at a particular grain and extent of nature. Second, the archetypes can prompt thinking about the scale of nature to use in interventions by looking back and considering possible grain and extents that could contribute to the desired PEB outcomes of an intervention. The archetypes might also be useful for considering the types of PEBs that can be prompted, and whether or not these PEBs will deliver tangible benefits in the desired locations and scales. For example, ‘equal interactions’ suggests that nature intervention programs that target small grain HNC will likely be tied to PEB outcomes at a spatial extent that will include this location.

Practitioners and policy makers must also provide reasoning for the design of nature as a treatment programs to receive support and funding. A greater understanding of scalar relationships can help justify why interventions are implemented at certain scales and aid in prioritizing interventions by anticipated PEB outcomes. Programs that are designed with grain and extent in mind will have more precise goals, application strategies, targeted PEB outcomes, and consideration of the location at which PEBs can be made, leading to more effective use of resources and more effective interventions.

Recommended further development of this conceptual approach

The spatially informed approach presented in this paper is useful for conceptual and practical application, but has limitations. This approach is a first step towards integrating spatial thinking into HNC–PEB research and will require empirical exploration to operationalize and validate the archetypes. PEB may be shaped by feelings of connectedness at different scales, or by a sense of connectedness at one scale. The archetypes should be seen as potential scalar relationships between the two constructs but should not be viewed as mutually exclusive nor encompassing all cases. The archetypes are not a pegboard on which every individual can be positioned at one point along a gradient. Rather, HNC is likely to build and exist at many scales: building on one another, existing at the same time, or growing greater.

To overcome these limitations, future research and testing of these three archetypes and additional scalar relationships between HNC and PEB is required. The development of a psychometric scale to test connectedness at various spatial scales may be an important step towards understanding individual connectedness at each scale and the associated PEB outcomes. Additionally, the archetypes can serve as a guide for the development of methodology for empirical studies. Empirical exploration could provide additional clarification regarding the most effective scale to connect individuals for any given PEB outcome and the role of different framings of scale (e.g., by socio-political or ecological boundaries) on reported connectedness levels. Furthermore, empirical exploration could delve into the more nuanced ways that HNC influences PEB by examining how the grain and extent of HNC influence the domain where individual acts (i.e., private/public, home, community, nation), what nature an individual acts to protect (i.e., near/far, familiar/exotic, mine/others), or the stage of behavior (i.e., pre-contemplation, intention, self-reported). Finally, while we focused on scalar HNC–PEB interactions at the individual level (fine grain behaviors), it would be instructive to explore these relationships at coarse grains [i.e., the meso level (e.g., households) and macro level (e.g., regional or national) (Reid et al. 2010)].


Addressing current environmental challenges will require a transformation of human behavior towards sustainability. Reconnecting individuals to nature is seen as one avenue for fostering the adoption of PEBs, which has lead to nature as treatment interventions. However, applying HNC as an effective treatment for PEB requires bridging conceptual gaps in our understanding of where individuals experience connectedness to nature and how these connections influence where individuals act pro-environmentally. In this paper, we propose that the integration of spatial scale into HNC–PEB research provides clarity and direction for understanding the interactions and linkages between these constructs.

We apply grain and extent to enhance our understanding of the relationship between HNC and PEB and introduce three scalar interactions useful for distinguishing spatial directionality of influence. This approach is useful for conceptual application for understanding PEB outcomes of HNC, as well as for practical application in the design of nature as treatment interventions. This conceptual approach suggests three scalar interactions and behavioral responses as a result of connecting an individual to nature at a particular geographic scale. Understanding the potential interactions and alignment of HNC and PEB along a spatial gradient may provide insights regarding where to target HNC interventions. The approach is timely as the ways in which we experience and connect to nature is transforming and we are using mediated and structured experience to connect with nature with greater frequency (Clayton et al. 2017).

A scalar approach to nature as a treatment cannot yet account for all behavioral responses to all degrees of HNC. However, the scalar relationships proposed in the archetypes above should provide guidance for scholars and practitioners delving into the most effective methods for promoting nature connectedness as a treatment for PEB change. This approach helps to clarify conceptual questions, which has implications for future sustainability science research. Integrating spatial thinking into HNC measures will lead to an increased understanding of how HNCs are shaped by place. This will add coherence to our understanding of how HNC differs across spatial gradients.



This research is supported by the VolkswagenStiftung and the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenshaft und Kultur funded project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation: Institutions, People and Knowledge” (Grant number A112269). The authors thank Christopher D. Ives, Maraja Riechers, Christian Dorninger, and Ioana A. Duse for their helpful feedback during the development of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of SustainabilityLeuphana University of LüneburgLüneburgGermany
  2. 2.Centre for Sustainability ManagementLeuphana University of LüneburgLüneburgGermany

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