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Bringing nature to everyone

A walk in the woods, in the desert, or even a city park can boost both your mood and your health—but access to nature isn’t always equal.

A group of scientists, healthcare researchers and community practitioners, including nearly a dozen representatives from the University of Utah, want to change that. In 2022, the group created the Nature and Health Alliance (NHA)—and their movement has support and financial backing from the REI Cooperative Action Fund.

The NHA convened for the first time in person in May for an interdisciplinary planning conference, bringing together some of the brightest minds in the burgeoning field of nature and human health from across the country. The two-day conference focused on creating a shared vision, goals, action items, and a leadership structure for the NHA to enhance understanding of and make more people aware of the health benefits of engaging with nature.

Nalini Nadkarni, PhD, professor emeritus in the University’s School of Biological Sciences, is one of the group’s leaders and facilitated hosting the conference in Salt Lake City.

“This is a group of people whose disciplines have few “crosspoints” because of the siloed nature of academia and our society,” Nadkarni said. “We had hard-core medical researchers conversing with people who do hands-on community work with minority groups, with people who are thinking innovative ways to train the next generation of healthcare workers, and with those working out ways for insurance companies to pay for nature services. The emerging collaborations promise new ways of looking at both human and planetary health .”

Along with many representatives from the University of Utah, the conference included participants from Harvard University, the University of Washington, Texas A&M, the University of Vermont, Houston Methodist University, UCLA, the University of Maryland and the University of California San Francisco.

Two representatives from the REI Cooperative Action Fund, President Marc Berejka and Program Officer Janelle Hillhouse, also attended to contribute their ideas and to show support for this work. The REI Fund provides financial support for organizations that foster connections with nature for groups that have traditionally lacked access to the outdoors.

“We all have a very real commitment to groups of people who have been underserved by nature before,” Nadkarni said. “Not only ethnic groups, but also groups who have physical limits to getting outside, such as people with disabilities, senior citizens, or the incarcerated.”

“We brought in faculty from various disciplines to help inform us on what it means to create a national movement,” said Myra Gerst, the program manager for the Nature and Health Alliance. “We’d like our group to be research-focused, but our questions are formed by community organizations and people on the ground doing the work. We can distribute our research to community organizations to make change.”

The NHA spent the first day of the conference on campus in working groups, with talks from. experts outside the field of nature and health. The topics included:

  • Indigenous perspectives from Heather Tanana, PhD (Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law)
  • Marketing and public relations from Eric Van Epps PhD (Utah’s David Eccles School of Business)
  • Rhetoric and environmental justice from Danielle Endres, PhD (Utah’s Environmental Humanities graduate program)
  • The history of social and environmental movements from Edward Walker PhD (UCLA’s Department of Sociology).

After a day of focused planning, Nadkarni hosted the entire group at her home for a home-cooked dinner to build a sense of connection and community among the diverse participants, sparklers included.

“I overheard group members saying, ‘I’ve never attended a planning conference that’s so welcoming and personalized,’” Gerst said. “The dinner propelled us into the second day of the conference and helped loosen everyone up, so ideas were flowing.”