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SENSING NATURE

Visual impairment and the natural environment

 

A study exploring the diverse sensory experiences people have with nature.

Over a two-year period this project is exploring how people feel in natural environments and asking why they experience nature in different ways. It is examining how these interactions might also affect people's sense of wellbeing over time.

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We’ll be speaking to a range of individuals living with different types of sight loss, including people born with a visual impairment and those who have acquired eye conditions later in life.

Roughly 285 million people are thought to live with visual impairments across the world - a number that is increasing as populations begin to age and conditions such as diabetes become more common.

This project will help us to understand how nature-based environments can be used to support wellbeing amongst those with sight loss, and will feed into policies and practices which promote more inclusive management of these spaces. It has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is being conducted at the University of Exeter Medical School.

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Interviews

A detailed series of interviews lie at the very heart of this study.

By listening to people’s stories of living with visual impairments, we want to gather information about their interactions with nature and learn from their experiences.

In the initial phase of the research, lead researcher, Sarah Bell, will be volunteering with a range of activity groups across England, including those working with individuals living with visual impairment. Sarah will use this opportunity to build an awareness of people’s diverse sensory worlds and to explore how people might like to share their experiences and stories.

In the project's second phase, Sarah will conduct a number of detailed interviews with people of different ages and backgrounds, and with varying forms of visual impairment. These interviews will help us develop a much deeper understanding into the factors that influence sensory experiences in natural environments.

 
 

Impacts

Scientific research aims to boost our understanding of complex subjects and then use this knowledge to benefit society.

The academic community refers to this process as creating 'impact' and it is a vital part of the research process. We're hoping to use this study's findings to support practice in three key groups.


Communities

By understanding and promoting opportunities to experience nature-based settings, we hope to improve the wellbeing of people and families who are living with visual impairments. We are working with sight-loss support groups across the UK and internationally to make sure our findings feed into strategies designed to maximise pleasurable and fulfilling experiences with nature.

We are also working with several environmental charities and will be organising a series of events to help organisations like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust support meaningful sensory experiences for visually impaired visitors.


Planners

The findings from this research will help landscape architects, planners and policy makers to design communities that consider the needs of people with visual impairments. We will be forming a network of key organisations and holding workshops with these groups to make sure our results and recommendations are widely communicated.

We will also be collaborating with the Design Council, the Sensory Trust and Professor Catharine Ward Thompson from OPENSpace at the University of Edinburgh to maximise the use of our findings. We will produce an inclusive design briefing, podcast and a series of Continuing Professional Development materials for built-environment professionals, to be hosted on the Design Council’s new online Inclusive Environments Hub.


Academics

This study will help us advance theories that explain the links between health, wellbeing and the environment and will be particularly useful in the fields of geography, psychology, sociology, and public health.

We will publish our findings in peer-reviewed academic journals. Sharing our research in this way demonstrates that we have followed the best practice in our data gathering and analysis. We will also present our results at scientific conferences and spend time with academics across the world to make sure our findings stimulate more critical discussions about people’s sensory and emotional experiences in nature-based settings.

 

Meet the team

Sarah Bell

Sarah is Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School and is leading the Sensing Nature study.

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Ronan Foley

Ronan Foley is a Senior Lecturer at Maynooth University with specialist expertise in therapeutic landscapes.

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Robin Kearns

Robin is Professor of Geography at the University of Auckland. His research focuses on how places affect wellbeing.

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Catherine Leyshon

Catherine is a cultural geographer at the University of Exeter chiefly interested in place, space, and identity.

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Rachel Toms

Rachel leads on health and inclusion at the Design Council, helping planners design successful buildings and public spaces.

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Terri Rosnau-Ward

Terri is Chief Executive at iSightCornwall, a charity helping people with sight loss to lead independent and fulfilled lives.

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Jane Stoneham

Jane is Director of the Sensory Trust, a UK organisation using inclusive design to connect people with the outdoors.

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C Ward Thompson

Catharine is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the OPENspace centre.

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Contact us

 

If you would like to find out more about this study or take part, we'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch by emailing Sarah.Bell@exeter.ac.uk or using the form below.

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