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

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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.
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Sustainability Science
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0578-x
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Human–nature connectedness asa‘treatment’ forpro-environmental
behavior: making thecase forspatial considerations
KathleenKlaniecki1 · JuliaLeventon1· DavidJ.Abson1,2
Received: 13 June 2017 / Accepted: 4 May 2018
© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018
Abstract
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 inves-
tigating these scalar relationships that can inform nature as a ‘treatment’ intervention.
Keywords Nature connectedness· Pro-environmental behavior· Local-to-global scales· Nature as treatment·
Sustainability
Introduction
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 sustain-
ability. 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 behav-
iors, attitudes, and intentions (Kals etal. 1999; Mayer and
Frantz 2004; Schultz etal. 2004). Pro-environmental behav-
iors (PEB) are those behaviors that seek to minimize nega-
tive 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, materi-
ally, and physically (Miller 2005; Cumming etal. 2014).
Moreover, biophysical disconnectedness, driven by indus-
trialization and global trade flows, has obscured the envi-
ronmental 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 sus-
tainability transformation (Pyle 2003; Abson etal. 2017).
One potential avenue for such transformative change is
Handled by Graham Epstein, University of Waterloo Faculty of
Environment, Canada.
* Kathleen Klaniecki
Klaniecki@leuphana.de
1 Faculty ofSustainability, Leuphana University ofLüneburg,
Universitätsallee 1, D-21335Lüneburg, Germany
2 Centre forSustainability Management, Leuphana University
ofLüneburg, Universitätsallee 1, D-21335Lüneburg,
Germany
Sustainability Science
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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 disconnect-
edness from the natural world, individuals may not connect
to nature nor receive the full benefits of nature exposure
without targeted interventions designed to facilitate connect-
edness (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 con-
ceptualizing and quantifying the relationship between the
multifaceted notions of HNC and PEB. Therefore, as socie-
ties 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; Nis-
bet 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 relation-
ship between degrees of HNC and PEB limit the applica-
bility as a solution to sustainability issues. More clarity is
needed to understand the richness of HNC and the inter-
play 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 indi-
viduals 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 bounda-
ries, 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 inter-
changeable, 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 spa-
tial scale of HNC and PEB. We then introduce and define
three archetypical HNC–PEB interactions for conceptual-
izing 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 socie-
ties 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 meas-
uring 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 con-
nection 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
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proper ‘dose’ of nature (e.g., Barton and Pretty 2010; Shana-
han 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 Bog-
ner 2012) and modified through educational programs or
self-directed experiences (e.g., Ernst and Theimer 2011).
Keniger etal. (2013) reviewed the literature and identi-
fied six settings where people and nature interact (indoor,
urban, fringe, production landscape, wilderness, and spe-
cific 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 experi-
ences (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 grow-
ing 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 relation-
ships between concepts and actors (Cash etal. 2006; Cum-
ming etal. 2006). Defining the appropriate scale for examin-
ing environmental issues is important. Scale is both socially
constructed and defined and the chosen scale should be use-
ful for the specific issues or phenomenon being researched
(Cash and Moser 2000). Incorporating geographic think-
ing 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 con-
cepts across scales is crucial for addressing global environ-
mental 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 psychologi-
cally distant (psychological distance) can influence indi-
vidual decision-making (Trope and Liberman 2010). Psy-
chological 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 understand-
ing and mapping place attachment—the degree to which an
individual feels an emotional connection to a place—(Jor-
gensen 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 spa-
tially mapping emotional connections to nature (Davis etal.
2016). Research also shows that individuals experience var-
ied 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).
In addition to a gap in understanding of spatial expres-
sions 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 attach-
ments 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
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‘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 spa-
tial 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 pro-
vide 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 eco-
logical sciences, scale is generally conceptualized in terms
of two characteristics: extent is the area over which a phe-
nomenon 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 phenom-
ena. 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.
Scale inPEB literature
The ways in which PEB has been studied and conceptu-
alized 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
Table 1 Current conceptualizations of scale in human–nature connectedness (HNC) literature
Scale Description
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)
National 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)
Global 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)
Species-specific 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)
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 spe-
cific local landscape features; biophysical attachments of
subsistence farmers
E.g., multiple place attachments across large geographi-
cal extents; emotional attachments to iconic species;
teleconnected biophysical connections of industrial-
ized farmers
Coarse grain connections E.g., regional cultural identities; cultural landscape con-
nections; broader scale place attachment E.g., philosophical sense of oneness to all nature; cog-
nitive understandings of large-scale social-ecological
functions
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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 environ-
mental 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 insti-
gated 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 assump-
tions 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 environ-
mental 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 simplifica-
tion 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.
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 conceptual-
izations are too overarching to be applicable in the study or
application of nature as a treatment for shaping or constrain-
ing 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 advance-
ment of the field, have limited applicability for nature as a
treatment practice.
We challenge the existing HNC and PEB conceptualiza-
tions 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 considera-
tions 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 inter-
action between factors that have distinct characteristics
that occur in various situations with similar outcomes. The
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
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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 pro-
vide 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 interac-
tions’, ‘embedded interactions’ and ‘extended interactions’,
(see Fig.1) illustrate scalar relationships between the grain
and extent of HNC and PEB. These archetypes are a con-
ceptual depiction of the various spatial representations of
individual nature connectedness and the corresponding
affect on PEB adoption or intention. Each archetype pre-
sumes HNC as the independent variable and PEB as the
dependent variable, reflecting the typical way these two con-
structs are most often related in the literature (e.g., Mayer
and Frantz 2004; Halpenny 2010). As discussed earlier, lit-
erature 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 clas-
sified 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.
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 out-
comes 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 connec-
tions 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
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)
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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 simplifica-
tion 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 con-
cepts 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. Connected-
ness 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 spa-
tially proximate environment (fine grain, small extent HNC)
act pro-environmentally to conserve and protect that place
(small extent PEB); individuals with connectedness to dis-
tant 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 for-
est 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 arche-
type. The most prominent is the place attachment literature,
which shows that individuals who feel attached to a loca-
tion will act to protect and care for that place (e.g., Scannell
and Gifford 2010). Place attachment has been shown to pre-
dict place-related pro-environmental intentions (Halpenny
2010). Scholars suggest this relationship is due to individu-
als 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 recreation-
ists, 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 pro-
tect 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, indi-
viduals built strong connections to their immediate envi-
ronment 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 relation-
ships. 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 conserva-
tion 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 connect-
edness at coarser spatial grains is tied to PEB at relatively
fine spatial extents. Individuals feel a generalized connected-
ness 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, individu-
als 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 plant-
ing native trees.
Studies have shown that national and global belonging is
correlated with general measurements of PEB (Der-Karabet-
ian etal. 2014). Walker etal. (2015) suggest that individuals
Sustainability Science
1 3
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 citizen-
ship paired with PEBs at more spatially proximate scales.
The ‘embedded interactions’ archetype is reflected most
strongly in the work and outreach strategies of environmen-
tal advocacy groups. Individuals receive educational infor-
mation 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 com-
munication 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 prod-
ucts through global trade, information about unfamiliar
biomes through television and internet, and increased abili-
ties to travel to new ecosystems have all facilitated increased
connectedness to nature at grains other than the most spa-
tially 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 connect-
edness 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 grow-
ing 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). Respond-
ents 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 posi-
tive 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 adop-
tion. Similarly, this archetype is often used in environmen-
tal 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 gen-
eral PEBs (e.g., Cosquer and Raymond 2012; Richardson
etal. 2016).
Applying aspatially informed HNC–PEB
approach
Introducing three archetypical interactions (equal, embed-
ded and extended) serves two purposes. First, the archetypes
aid in the categorization and specification of HNC–PEB
research. Applying grain and extent to existing conceptu-
alizations of HNC provides a more nuanced way of under-
standing variances in where individuals feel connected to
nature. Applying extent to existing conceptualizations of
PEB provides a more nuanced understanding of where indi-
viduals 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 sus-
tainably, 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 fac-
tors such as degree of connectedness, geographic location
Sustainability Science
1 3
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 exist-
ing models and frameworks provides richness to the sca-
lar 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 sca-
lar interactions with this classification of HNC may reveal
interactions between the five types of connection and the
spatial scale over which these connections occur. Specifi-
cally, 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 connec-
tions (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-environ-
mentally. 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 expe-
riences 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 inter-
actions and managed experiences) are leading to connect-
edness 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 connect-
edness 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 spe-
cies 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 expo-
sure 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 expo-
sure 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 inter-
actions’ 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 meaning-
ful change towards sustainability (e.g., Abson etal. 2017;
Ives etal. 2018). Further conceptual thinking and empiri-
cal 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 unsus-
tainable lifestyles and the adoption of PEBs. Each arche-
type might represent different leverage points, ranging from
shallow—easy to adopt, but unlikely to lead to deep sus-
tainable 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-envi-
ronmentally 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 spa-
tially 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 rela-
tionship 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 recon-
nection 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 envi-
ronmental challenges. In HNC studies, there is a need to
Sustainability Science
1 3
make research and models more useful for policy mak-
ers and practitioners (Restall and Conrad 2015). In that
context, our archetype approach is not intended for appli-
cation 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 guid-
ance for practitioners on how and why to connect individ-
uals to certain types or locations of nature. Practitioners
must determine where to implement interventions and at
what spatial scale they are attempting to build connected-
ness. As these decisions are guided by geographic loca-
tion, available resources, and the purpose of the organi-
zation, 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 rea-
soning 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 inter-
ventions by anticipated PEB outcomes. Programs that are
designed with grain and extent in mind will have more
precise goals, application strategies, targeted PEB out-
comes, 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 connected-
ness 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 indi-
vidual 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 relation-
ships at coarse grains [i.e., the meso level (e.g., households)
and macro level (e.g., regional or national) (Reid etal.
2010)].
Conclusions
Addressing current environmental challenges will require
a transformation of human behavior towards sustainabil-
ity. 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
Sustainability Science
1 3
experience connectedness to nature and how these con-
nections influence where individuals act pro-environ-
mentally. 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 understand-
ing of the relationship between HNC and PEB and intro-
duce three scalar interactions useful for distinguishing spa-
tial 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 particu-
lar geographic scale. Understanding the potential interac-
tions and alignment of HNC and PEB along a spatial gradi-
ent 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 under-
standing of how HNCs are shaped by place. This will add
coherence to our understanding of how HNC differs across
spatial gradients.
Acknowledgements This research is supported by the Volkswagen-
Stiftung and the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenshaft und
Kultur funded project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transforma-
tion: 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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