Can nature-deficit create criminals? Wilderness may provide national security too

Randy Son Of Robert, flickr

In recent months, there have been many discussions about how to ensure that our communities remain safe, but few have mentioned one particular resource for this: wilderness.

Most of us who enjoy all that recreation offers know that spending time in wild places makes us happier people. Feelings of joy naturally ripple outwards - into our families, social circles and communities. But few of us pause to consider the opposite: deprivation of nature can cause an unease that can also leak into social spheres.

In the last decade or so, there has been a growing amount of evidence verifying what seems pretty intuitive: offering recreation opportunities can make the difference between a healthy, well-adjusted person and a confused criminal. In other words, nature-deficit is nothing to take lightly! The benefits of recreation keep our kids happier and ultimately our cities safer.

Natural spaces prevent bullying

Some speculate that the cure for bullying is simpler than we may have believed. No, we don't need elaborate interventions or scolding school assemblies. We just need more green spaces! Research has shown that only natural environments meet these needs of children:

  • Play that is appealing due to qualities of diversity and timelessness
  • Enhancement of cognitive abilities that leads to better academic performance across the curriculum
  • Stimulation for creative play (more so than man-made playgrounds)
  • Space than encourages socialization based upon language and imagination rather than physical prowess
  • Development of a sense of place through direct contact with the natural elements

The irony is that as these spaces become fewer, concern for children's safety during unstructured outdoor time heightens. But without this space and time, we may actually be encouraging traits that lead to aggressive social behaviors.

Recreation offers alternatives to teenage violence and drug use

Children who haven't developed healthy social skills or self-esteem may later require intervention. In a study called "Adolescents with Aggressive Behavior: Implications for Therapeutic Recreation," researchers note that recreation can help with alcohol use, smoking and deviant behavior among teenagers. In particular, they attribute these following programs as being beneficial, for self-explanatory purposes:

  • Social skills enhancing programs
  • Physically active but non-competitive leisure programs
  • Diversity-enhancing programs
  • Programs that empower
  • Self-expressive and cognition-changing programs

Similar methods were tested by the Detroit Recreation Department, emphasizing the use of leisure time for enrichment of health and self.

Recreation opportunities lead to less gang violence

If evidence is what you're after to prove these claims, look no further than L.A., where different recreation programs have shown:

  • a 35% reduction in gang related crimes at associated sites, and
  • a 20% decrease in gang activity and a 15% decrease in gang violence during youth program hours

Since 2009, the Watts Cluster Project has brought together kids from often-warring housing projects in southern Los Angeles, developing a popular social outlet for at-risk youth. What would be even better would be to get these kids into not just city parks, but into national ones.

Green spaces lead to reduction in crime

Perhaps more stunning are findings that indicate that even without recreation programming, green spaces themselves can lead to less crime. According to the American Planning Association: 

  • Parks increase neighborhood safety by relieving mental fatigue and the feelings of violence and aggression
  • Those who live near green spaces socialize more with their neighbors, and therefore have greater feelings of community and safety

Parks Build Community is a national initiative that wants to capitalize on the value of parks and recreation in America's communities. They revitalize urban parks in under-served areas so they can become the beautiful green spaces that improve social experiences.

Wilderness as a cure-all?

Wilderness provides for so many of our needs - clean air and water, physical activity, economic vitality, happiness, creativity and immunity, among others. So it shouldn't surprise us that wilderness may also be a recipe for another: basic security. 

As legislators consider how to keep America's communities safe, it makes sense for them to reflect on how protecting wilderness can contribute to that effort.

The Wilderness Society will continue to advocate for wild places that are invaluable to supporting our country, now and for future generations.