Recharging in nature

How nature is good for our health, and how installing EV chargers at national parks might help us get there...
03 April 2023
Presented by Chris Smith, Will Tingle
Production by Chris Smith, Will Tingle.


This week, in partnership with BMW, we're “recharging in nature” - discovering how stepping out into wild country replenishes our wellbeing batteries. But there’s a disconnect for drivers of electric vehicles: many of the national parks are very much “off grid”, paradoxically preventing those doing their bit for environmentally-friendly motoring with an electric car from benefiting. Luckily there's also a new initiative to power up national parks and benefit biodiversity...

In this episode

A forest of tall, thin trees lit by sunlight

04:38 - How being out in nature changes our brains

Why does being in the great outdoors reduce stress, and improve cognitive functions?

How being out in nature changes our brains
David Pearson, Anglia Ruskin University

There’s evidence from psychological studies that nature holds a special place in our hearts and can be a powerful mental health elixir: immersion in the great outdoors, and in wild country like you find in many national parks, seems to leave participants feel re-energised and mentally refreshed. But is this just down to digitally detoxing - divorcing ourselves from mobile devices and social media - or is there something else going on? What does the science say? David Pearson is a cognitive neuroscientists at Anglia Ruskin University…

David - It can take a number of different forms. Generally reduction in stress, people have a greater sense of positive emotion. Studies have also shown that people report lower symptoms in terms of anxiety and depression after spending time in nature. And we also see general improvements in cognitive functioning. Things like better sustained attention, better ability to concentrate, better ability to solve complex problems and things like that.

Chris - Do you actually have to be there to get the benefit or can you stay on the couch and tune into David Attenborough and watch a bit of Blue Planet or something and say, 'well, I've immersed myself in that' and get the same benefit?

David - Well, I mean, there is research which shows that looking at videos of nature or even just photographs of nature can have beneficial effects. And there's a growing research looking at virtual reality simulations of nature, also showing that they can have beneficial effects. In terms of what the added benefit of being in a real environment is. One is complete immersion and the other is that being in nature, it's a multi-sensory experience. So if you're just looking at David Attenborough that's predominantly visual and auditory. When you are in a real environment, you've got the visual stimulus, but also the sounds of nature, bird song, the wind, and so on. Also just the wind on your skin, the temperature. So it's a more immersive experience and you have a greater sense of being kind of removed from the stresses of your everyday life.

Chris - I suppose there's a physical element too, isn't there? Because if you're out and about in the country, you're going to be more active and we know that activity also has a positive reinforcing effect on mood and everything.

David - Absolutely. I mean, I think it's not just the exposure to nature, it's also the exercise. It's being in a less polluted atmosphere, being in a generally calming environment. So you get a number of different factors, which we know individually can be beneficial and which are combined when in somewhere like a national park or an area of outstanding national beauty.

Chris - What sorts of experiments can we do to probe this? Because it's hard to take a brain scanner up the top of a mountain in the Lake District, for example and get an objective measure of what's going on in someone's brain. So how have people sought to kind of understand this apart from just asking people vague questions?

David - I think some of the best research is intervention based studies. So basically you take at least two groups of people. You measure their stress and their cognitive functioning, and then one group you get to do a kind of nature based activity and another group you get to do an equivalent built environment activity. And then you measure their levels of stress and cognitive functioning again. And there's a growing number of studies which have done that, which have found that when people do take part in a nature-based activity, and if you compare them to another group who've done the same kind of activity in a more built environment, they show improvements in terms of reduced stress, enhanced cognitive functioning and things like that.

Chris - How long do the benefits last?

David - The benefits do last. It's not just for when you're in nature. So studies have shown that if you come back from a walk in nature and you compare that to someone who's had the equivalent length of walk in, say, a built environment that people are better at concentrating, say the studies with students showing that they pay more attention in lectures and that you have a sustained mood and sustained improvements in things like attention and concentration, which can last beyond just a period in which you are in that environment.

Chris - Is there a physical mechanism if we, based on our understanding of the way the brain is wired up and the measurements we can make practically and objectively on people who take part in these sorts of studies, is there some kind of mechanism we can attribute to why we see this positive effect of being out in nature?

David - As you said earlier it's quite difficult to get a detailed look at the functions of the brain due to when people are in real environments, of course we can't take a scanner up a mountain and not put it in the forest. So a lot of that research is focused just on looking at how the brain activity when people are looking at, for example, photographs of natural and built environments. Now even with that limitation, it's shown that the brain does respond differently when we're just looking at photographs of natural environments versus built environments. So we see changes in the twin or default attentional network in the brain, which is a part of the brain when we are kind of paying more attention to our internal mental thoughts rather than the external world. And we also see differences in the kind of the attentional parts of the brain, which, for example, look at the location of objects or what objects look like. Those are the dorsal and the ventral attentional networks. So this kind of ties into a theory that one reason why natural environments are beneficial is because the way in which our attentional systems of the brain engage in natural environments is different to when we're in a built environment. So when we're in a built environment, there are lots of elements in that scene which are kind of dynamically competing for our attention. And when we're in a natural environment, we're still paying attention to it when it's a much more relaxed, less dynamically externally driven way. And this is one of the reasons why we get a reduction in stress and an improvement in cognitive functioning after we're exposed to nature.

Chris - Is there a difference between an older person who doesn't effectively go digital cold Turkey when you divorce them from a mobile phone and access to Facebook and put them in that environment? Compared to a young person who, as far as I can tell, their phone has become an extension of their body and you put them in an environment where there is no signal. Do one group over the other tend to benefit more or tend to find it a better experience than the other?

David - Most research shows that lots of different demographics benefit kind of age, gender, these aren't necessarily significant factors. One issue is some research has shown that the amount of time you spent when you were growing up in a natural or built environment can be a mediating factor. So one study showed that the amount of time you'd spent in a natural environment in the first 15 years of your life was a factor in terms of how restorative you found spending time in nature or spending time in built environments. So your childhood experiences in nature could be a factor in how restorative you find natural environments. And that is a concern because as you said, with digital technology, younger generations are spending less time in natural environments than previous generations.

A river in the fog

11:50 - What does biodiversity do for us?

What is biodiversity, and why is its maintenance so important?

What does biodiversity do for us?
Iain Webb, The Wildlife Trusts

We’ve spoken about the mental health benefits of outdoor spaces such as national parks, but this is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to what green spaces can bring to the table. The big one is biodiversity. Earth's wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% in just under 50 years, so any protected area that can maintain species of plants and animals is vital to the biodiversity crisis. But what exactly is biodiversity, and why is it seen as such an important thing to conserve? Will Tingle met up with The Wildlife Trusts' Iain Webb to answer these questions. Well, if they could stop birdwatching for long enough, that is…

Will - I cannot promise that this interview won't be interrupted by an impromptu birdwatch.

Iain - Okay, fair enough.

Will - That's just the nature of the beast, unfortunately.

Iain - Yeah, that's okay. That's why we're here.

Will - Well, when we talk about biodiversity, we hear it. It's a buzzword. We hear it a lot in the news. 'Low levels of biodiversity. This needs to improve our biodiversity.' Is that just the number of animals that are in a place or is there more to it than that?

Iain - Well, obviously the number of animals or plants in this place is important. But it's also whether those species are expected to be there, whether there could be more species there in that sort of natural system. And it's also the populations of those species as well. You could have lots of different species, but only two or three breeding pairs or whatever. And that's not really a healthy ecosystem. You really need it as natural as possible where the natural systems are allowed to occur, where populations interact, go up and down and aren't needing to have support by people in maintaining them.

Will - Does the biodiversity of national parks have a kind of bleed out effect so that the organisms living there tend to move outwards and perhaps improve the levels of biodiversity in nearby regions?

Iain - Yes, they do. They can act as a biodiversity source. So if the habitats are healthy within those national parks and species increase in number, in good numbers, then they will spill out. The one example quite obvious is not necessarily national parks as such, but marine protected areas where there's been long-term protection or certainly severe limitations on the extraction of fish, et cetera. Resources from these areas and those fish populations, those crustacean populations are crabs and lobsters. Those populations increase individuals that increase in size and then that protection encourages the migration of those species out of the protected area. And then it's therefore available to those people who collect those resources to then be used by people living nearby. So that's an obvious indication of where we can utilize for our own consumption, the value of national parks and the surrounding areas. But obviously there is value in enhancing habitats and species and ecosystems for the other natural capital, if you want to call it that. So like cleaning the air. If you think about on the larger scale, you know, the tipping point of losing 20% of the Amazon. The Amazon produces its own rainfall. And when you lose a certain portion of it we get less rainfall in the area and it'll become savannah and that sort of a tipping point away from tropical rainforests. National parks if managed well and are able to support good numbers of species, then those species will spread up.

Will - And there's the obvious one, that they are a massive contributor towards the fight against climate change.

Iain - Oh yeah. Good quality, diverse habitats will help sequester and store carbon for decades, centuries, millennia, even in certain habitats. So the more diverse, the more rich habitats there are, the greater sink, those habitats act to absorb carbon dioxide. More biodiversity there is around, there's more carbon locked up, whether it be in soils, in plant matter itself, in animal matter. So yeah, it is really key to not just reduce our fossil fuel use, but to make sure there are natural habitats to absorb that carbon. They can do far, much more than just absorbing carbon. They provide a nice opportunity to walk in the afternoon sunshine as they're doing now, but also food production, medicine, flood alleviation, timber products, all these sort of things. All the things that we've actually, we have evolved from biodiverse habitats and have exploited them for millennia. So it is key not to forget that we do need that, even though we feel that we are technologically removed from nature, we still need it completely and utterly in its healthiest, most diverse form.

Will - Do you think access to nature increases people's willingness or wantingness to get involved in, you know, maintaining biodiversity projects such as that?

Iain - Definitely. You're not going to want to protect something you don't understand or you don't love. And I think the lockdowns made people go outside more and really appreciate what's surrounding them. You can watch various wildlife documentaries on the telly, but it's always stuff overseas and it's only the stuff really that's right on your doorstep that is really key, really important that you can connect with every day or see it change throughout the seasons that is fundamentally vital for your mental health.

Will - Glad we held it together for the whole of that interview. Did you hear the woodpecker going over there?

Iain - I didn't. Was it?

Will - Ah, it was good. Yeah.

Iain - I was too focused on the saying the right thing <laugh>

Will - I found a green woodpecker nest...

Electric vehicle sign

17:18 - Installing EV chargers into national parks

What is the reality of putting electric vehicle charging ports into national parks?

Installing EV chargers into national parks
Melanie Shufflebotham, Zap-Map & Graeme Patton, Joju

Many National Parks lie in breathtakingly beautiful, but often therefore remote places, which are difficult to access by public transport. Unsurprisingly, data from The National Parks shows that over 90% of the journeys to them are made by car, the majority of them powered by petrol or diesel. Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly commonplace - there are now over a million EVs and plugin hybrids on our roads as environmentally-conscious drivers seek to operate more sustainably. But therein lies the problem: drivers of the very type of vehicle that can help to keep national parks pristine and peaceful are likely to be deterred by anxieties that Parks won't have enough public charging points and they will run out of charge somewhere remote. This is the issue that the recharge in Nature project - which is a collaboration between car makers BMW and the National Parks and in their words aims “to fortify the charging infrastructure around some of these remote venues, and support vital nature restoration” - aims to tackle.

But what’s it going to take to deal with the range anxiety issue and the paucity of charging points that is a cause of intense frustration at the moment for electric vehicle users. And indeed how big is the problem. With me are Melanie ShuffleBotham, COO and co-founder of Zap-Map one of the first apps designed to help people to find charging points, and Graeme Patton who is the head of EV charging at the company Joju who work with local authorities and other organisations to install large-scale vehicle charging infrastructure.

Melanie - So I think overall the EV charging infrastructure is INS being installed at a pretty fast rate. As you said, there's around a million EVs on the road at the moment. Two thirds of which are pure electric vehicles, so only use electricity. And in terms of charging, the great thing about electricity is that it is available everywhere. And by far the biggest rollout of charging infrastructure is actually currently at home or at work. I mean, estimates vary, but around 80% of drivers are able to charge at home. So there's at least 500,000 charge points installed on people's driveways and, and more at workplaces. So those people who do have off-street parking or access to charging at work, they can charge up overnight, low powered charging, and generally only use public charging on longer journeys. But of course, looking at the public charging network, which is where we, Zap-Map, are really focused. At the moment, there's around 40,000 charge devices across about 20,000 locations across the whole of the UK. This has grown by about 30% since last year. So a really good increase. Yes, there needs to be more. And of course as more and more people go electric, more and more need to be installed. And I think the other thing I'd say on this is that while it's useful to think about that top line number, really charging comes in many different forms. Three key forms. Firstly en-route charging. So that's when you are on the longer journey. And really your whole objective is to find an available reliable charge point that you can charge up with as quickly as possible. So these are really what people think, typically think about when they're thinking about charging and they're on the strategic road network, you can add around a hundred miles of charge in 15 minutes and there's around 7,000 of those across 4,000 locations. Secondly, there are destination chargers. So this is really anywhere where you might stop for one or two hours and this is sort of linked up to the national parks. It can be found at all sorts of places - car parks, supermarkets, national trust, properties, B&Bs. So those are very pertinent to this sort of national park question. And then thirdly, on-street charging. So this is really the other end of the scale, very much low powered charging where people who don't have off street parking or who are parking somewhere for a long period may use these charges overnight instead of off street parking. And they are actually typically found, not always, but typically found in a converted lamp lamppost. So that's sort of where we are at the moment.

Chris - I just want to bring in Graham, because interesting what Melanie is saying, making the point about different sorts of charging regimes and timings that people allow, Graham. If we think about a national park, I would think if someone drives there, they don't want to waste the time in the national park charging a car, they will probably want to park and go, won't they?

Graham - Absolutely. I mean, this destination charging segment that, that Melanie mentioned, it is all about exactly that, you know, being able to turn up in your EV, park, charge, and be at your leisure to take the 2, 4, 6 hours that you may be wanting to spend in the national park, going for a walk, seeing the beautiful nature, et cetera. Whereas often, and what we're seeing in the towns and cities near the major road networks, this push for rapid charging where there's a rapid charger. Yes, you can get on your way up to 80% battery charge within 40, 45 minutes which is ideal to go and grab a coffee. But that isn't the type of infrastructure that we would want up in the Cairngorms, for example.

Chris - Because if you had a car park with some charging points in it and everyone parked and walked, then very quickly it'd be saturated and useless. So what sort of thing are we looking at? Are we looking at fast charging where we put in really high current, really high power devices that will give people the charge but then get rid of them? Or are people thinking well we do need an acre's worth of parking where people can park and then walk for four hours while the car charges up? Do you know what's in the mind of people who have got these sorts of plans?

Graham - The market and the drivers out there need both ,need access to both, but it really depends on the type of location that you're going. So if we're talking about the national parks, in my opinion, you're going to be wanting what we're saying, you know, fast chargers, which is typically a single phase, a seven kilowatt charger, typically charging a vehicle in four hours, four, six hours. Whereas the rapid charger, the owner of the rapid charger, the investor in that rapid charger, they want 24 people to use that charger every day for an hour. They don't want somebody parking up and blocking it for four hours if they've charged their car in 45 minutes.

Chris - Yes, I mean the economics is going to be very important with this, isn't it? Because presumably for someone to fund this, they've got to know that they can make their money back. And so if they're going to get the odd car, I mean, I know we said earlier there's a hundred million visits to national parks, 90% of them petrol and diesel cars at the moment. But we can imagine in the future there'll be a very heavy EV presence in a national park. But someone's still nevertheless got to be persuaded to park with some pretty serious cash to put the infrastructure in to lay the cables in and do it in a way that will obviously be environmentally friendly so that people can use this and not block it up and quickly block all the chargers.

Graham - Exactly. And it's that cost. And who foots the bill of that? You know the ChargePoint operators, you know, they could put in a bank of rapid charges in the city for a fraction of the cost of what it would cost up in the Norfolk Broads, for example. So it's definitely the mixture of technologies, the mixture of power, but also appealing to all the different demographics of drivers that ultimately need to charge their cars.

Chris - Melanie, will operators of apps like yours have a role in the future so that we avoid the sorts of= congestion we got for charges over Christmas? There were a lot of headlines over Christmas where people were saying they were queuing for hours at services and things because all the charging stations were full. Could you have a system where you can actually route people to optimize their journeys so they minimize their wait time so we don't end up with crowding at one particular hub. And would that potentially play into this sort of idea for national parks?

Melanie - I think so. I mean, at the moment what we do at Zap-Map is we aggregate all data from all the different charging operators all into one place. And we do have live availability data coming through on the app so that people, when they're driving down the motorway, can take a look at the app and see, 'oh, this charging station is busy, maybe I need to go to a different one.' But there is no doubt that there have certainly been pinch points. I think Tebay services was a particular one just up north of the Lake District. Probably people were looking to go to the Lake District. So certainly as time goes on we will be introducing more and more features to allow people to select the appropriate ChargePoint and look at user comments and understand the availability and the queues at different charge points.

Chris - And Graham, do you see this as a realistic prospect, the electrification of national parks so that they become sustainably accessible to people as we move into an EV powered transport regime?

Graham - Definitely.It needs to happen in all car parks, let alone in the town and cities where there's high footfall presently. Up in the national parks, people want to drive there, need to drive there, going to be driving there more in their electric vehicles. So therefore the infrastructure needs to be in those car parks and, and it's schemes like this recharging nature project that are hopefully going to drive it in these parks. But also then other organizations and rural locations will follow suit.


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