Nature and people’s subjective wellbeing: Does it matter how close someone lives to a protected area?

25th November 2020

The European Union recently published its new Biodiversity strategy setting some of the most ambitious targets in its history. A key question though remains on how we can increase public acceptance for new and existing protected areas in Europe. I have been researching this topic in the past 10 years influenced mainly by my experience in the country I grew up. In Greece I often visited national parks and didn’t even realise that I was within an area which was protected. Illegal beach bars, motorcycle races, and shooting of deers were just some of the few things I witnessed within Greek protected areas. When visiting other European protected areas, outside my country and especially in western Europe, I often noticed a higher level of compliance with regulations and a stronger connection of people with nature.

A recently demolished illegal beach bar at the Schinias National Park, Greece

 These differentiated levels of compliance and support for protected areas areas made me start researching the following questions: why people react in different ways when they are introduced to the idea of a protected area? Is their reaction based on a very rational estimation of the impacts of a protected area? or is it something more complicated such as social capital levels, environmental values and location? In the past 2 years I have been privileged to explore these questions via the project FIDELIO in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Department of Land Economy and practitioners from 20 European protected areas.

The Black Forest national park, where significant protests emerged when it was designated in 2014, is one of FIDELIO’s research areas

We recently published an article analysing data from approximately 800 respondents living in 4 protected areas in Greece. We looked into which factors influence the quality of life of local people, what we call ‘subjective wellbeing’. One of the most important parameters explaining individual wellbeing levels was how much people benefit from the existence of the national park. Those who perceived that they gain a number of benefits had a higher perceived quality of life. On the contrary, those who felt that the protected area had a negative impact on them, for example on their income, had lower wellbeing levels. Another important factor was the geographical location of the respondent, with those living closer to the national park (and the core of the protected area) had higher levels of subjective wellbeing. Other factors which also played a role were how emotionally attached someone was to the area and also aspects of individual social capital, such as social trust.

Spatial mapping of magnitude of responses on wellbeing for the 4 Greek National Parks (source: Nikoleta Jones et al 2020 Environ. Res. Lett. 15 114030)

Our research highlights the role of variations in terms of the socio-economic impacts of protected areas at individual level but also on a spatial scale. It also focuses on the possible occurrence of unequal distribution of impacts across communities with certain groups benefiting more than others resulting possibly to differentiated levels of support. In FIDELIO we will continue working on this topic in the next 3 years and our aim is to support practitioners in finding the right tools to increase public acceptance for protected areas across Europe.


Author bio:

Nikoleta is a Principal Research Associate at the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge. She is an environmental social scientist and her work focuses mainly on social impacts of environmental policies and improving the levels of public acceptability for policy initiatives. In recent years, she has become increasingly interested in assessing social impacts of protected areas, focusing on their temporal and spatial dimension. She currently leads the project FIDELIO funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (2019-2024, €1.5m) exploring social impacts of European Protected Areas.