Connecting People with Nature

Parks & Nature Recreation :: Natural Area Recreation :: Proximity to Parks
Environmental Education :: Environmental Education Centers :: Community Colleges :: State Curriculum
Environmental Choices :: Green Buildings :: Transportation Choices :: Waste and Recycling Practices


Outdoor exercise, fresh air, and contemplation support our health and vibrancy, provide relief from modern stresses, and remind us of our place in the natural world. Playing in nature is an important part of our children’s development and health. As more and more of our time is programmed and “plugged in”, we must foster the connections with nature that can sustain a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. Here, we gauge the Triangle’s main assets and opportunities for connecting people with nature, which take many forms. The introduction establishes the importance of connecting with nature, describing human dependence on natural cycles and resources, developmental benefits to children, and personal and societal economic benefits.

Opportunities to connect with nature are a key aspect of our region’s ability to attract new businesses and jobs. Triangle inhabitants take pride in having access to a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. Our Parks and Nature Recreation measures, include a survey of land and activities available to residents and visitors; the distribution of parks in relation to community populations is examined; and an assessment visitation and economic benefits of parks and recreation.

Environmental education is a key component of healthy development and understanding of our natural world and our place in it. Our measures include a survey of facilities and curriculum both for grade school and community colleges, while also drawing upon prior studies of environmental education centers that serve public schools.

The environmental choices that people make affect the natural environment, and the opportunities that are available to them can provide options for reducing negative effects. We investigated implementation of green building practices, transportation choices, and recycling and solid waste landfill rates.

Black Creek Greenway, Cary, NC. (photos by George Hess)
High school students learning about bird banding. Schenck Forest, Raleigh, NC.
Neuse River, Wake County, NC.

Why is Connecting with Nature Important?

The future is in our hands. The choices that are made by individuals, parents, businesses, institutions, and governments shape the natural environment. Fostering environmental stewardship begins with encounters with and learning about the natural world. “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught” Baba Dioum, Minister of Agriculture, Senegal,1968

Policymaking plays a key role in the protection of the natural environment. Since the experiences we encounter as children influence our behaviors and beliefs as adults, education and outdoor adventures are essential in developing concern for a healthy environment. By asking our policymakers to make environmental education a priority, we can ensure that our children learn to behave in a way that will protect the future health of the environment.

We breathe, we eat, we drink, we build, we recreate, we enjoy. Our lives depend on clean air and water. The plants and animals that serve as our food are grown with the help of vibrant soils, healthy water ecosystems, and sunshine. The trappings of human creativity and enterprise ultimately depend on materials and natural resources. Time spent in a natural setting helps renew the spirit, lowering stress and its unhealthful side effects. Access to outdoor recreation promotes healthy bodies and minds.

It’s healthy for children. The National Wildlife Federation cites studies that confirm that children who play outdoors exhibit the following:
  1. Stronger bones and lower cancer risk. Sunshine helps with absorption of Vitamin D and calcium.
  2. Trimmer and healthier. An hour of play a day can ward off childhood obesity and diabetes.
  3. Improved eyesight. Kids who get outdoor time are less likely to be nearsighted and need eye glasses.
  4. Less depression and hyperactivity. Outdoor time in natural settings (even tree-lined streets) soothes kids and lower their need for medications.
  5. Longer attention spans. Children who spend a lot of time watching TV and playing video games have less patience and shorter attention spans.
  6. Better at making friends. Children playing together outdoors relate directly with one another, and improve their "people" skills.
  7. More creative. Outdoor kids are more likely to use their own imaginations, inventions and creativity while playing.
  8. Better behavior at home and school. Kids who play and interact together, away from the violence on TV and video games, learn that violent behavior does not solve problems.
  9. Measurably better grades in school. The healthy bodies and minds that come with outdoor play are better able to do well in school.
  10. A longer lifespan and healthier adult life. Doctors estimate that active children gain three to five years of life expectancy over sedentary and obese children.
Source: Adapted from

Learn about your watershed with this fun and engaging environmental education tool

Stewardship and preservation can bring economic benefits and avoid costly expenditures. Investing in the environment is an investment in the Triangle’s economic prosperity. Below are just a few examples of the economic impacts that the environment is having on the economic growth of the Triangle.

Tourism and Economic Benefits
  • According to the State Division of Tourism, scenery is North Carolina’s strongest draw for tourism, a $17 billion industry that employs 200,000 people. (1)
  • North Carolina enjoys 49 million visitors annually, primarily for the state’s outstanding natural resources.(2)
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway alone attracts nearly 20 million visitors and contributes more than $2 billion to the regional economy each year. (2)
  • North Carolina State Parks attract 13.4 million visitors and generate roughly $400 million each year.(3)

Hunting and Fishing
  • Hunting and fishing directly supports 29,000 jobs and provides $818 million worth of paychecks around the state.(4)
  • The money generated by hunting and fishing has a ripple effect throughout the state, for rural areas, mom and pop businesses, the tourism and travel industry, manufacturing and retail, and much more, equating to $4.7 million a day for North Carolina.(4)
  • Fish and wildlife recreation generates $4.3 billion with 3.4 million participants annually in North Carolina.(2)

Outdoor Recreation and Health
  • Parks, trails and greenways provide recreational opportunities – important in North Carolina, a state with the 16th highest rate of obesity for all residents and fifth highest for children.
  • 1.86 million people, or 27 percent of the population, participate in wildlife viewing in North Carolina annually. (6)
  • North Carolina’s state parks potentially contribute $289 million to local economies annually, while providing $120 million to local residents’ income.,(3)

Attracting New Residents, Retirees and Businesses
  • Parks increase the value of neighboring residential and commercial property
  • Parks are considered in the quality of life factor for corporations choosing to relocate to the region.
  • Parks /also provide tourism draws, aiding local businesses.
  • NC’s natural beauty is responsible for attracting retirees to the state. If 100 retired households come to a community in a year, each with a retirement income of $40,000, their impact is similar to that of a new business spending $4 million annually in the community.
  • North Carolina reports a net in-migration of individuals over the age of 60 of 30,807 from 1999-2000 which accounts for $1.2 million in spending in the state of North Carolina over 5 years. (9)

Ecosystem Services. From flood prevention to water filtration, in many cases, human-made inventions are a poor (and expensive) substitute for nature’s genius. For example, the costs of treating drinking water is reduced when watersheds are protected. In general, the EPA estimates it is anywhere from 20 to 400 times more expensive to treat contamination than to prevent it. The following are other services that are cost-effectively performed by nature, and can have multiple benefits in connecting people to our natural resources (10).
  • Purification of air and water
  • Mitigation of droughts and floods
  • Generation and preservation of soils and renewal of their fertility
  • Detoxification and decomposition of wastes
  • Pollination of crops and natural vegetation
  • Dispersal of seeds
  • Cycling and movement of nutrients
  • Control of the vast majority of potential agricultural pests
  • Maintenance of biodiversity
  • Partial stabilization of climate
  • Moderation of weather extremes and their impacts
  • Provision of aesthetic beauty and intellectual stimulation that lift the human spirit


This introduction establishes the argument for effectively connecting people with nature through parks, recreation, economic benefits, and ecosystem services. Human activities and urban development can have a much more positive effect on the environment if designed carefully, taking these benefits into account. Making smart choices about the areas of land that are suitable for development and those that are suitable for conservation and recreation will be the cornerstone of proactive policy. Principles of economically, socially, and environmentally sound development design can be found in the themes of Reality Check, a regional partnership of the Urban Land Institute, Triangle Tomorrow, and others (see Triangle Reality Check). These principles have already been adopted by a number of municipalities to guide their decision-making. The guiding principles include investing in vibrant city centers, protecting green space, and maximizing transportation choices. As the region continues to grow, designating areas for contact with nature will remain a high priority.

Here, we provide indicators of the present status of the Triangle’s assets in connecting people with nature. In addition, the section itself contains resources that can connect residents, business owners, institutions and policymakers to the environment. Once you are finished reading, be sure to go out and paddle, fish, hike, view, walk, bike, and discover nature.

Triangle Reality Check

In February 2009, 300 civic leaders from the greater Triangle area participated in a growth planning exercise to create a vision our region for the next 25 years. The Reality Check exercise and subsequent Results Summit were a collaborative effort of Triangle Tomorrow and the Urban Land Institute .

Participants of Reality Check reached consensus on three guiding principles that should be used to plan for quality, sustainable growth in the Triangle region:
  • Transit - improve regional transit and match land use decisions with transit investments
  • Vibrant Centers - reinvest in city and town centers, and promote compact development, density, and mixed use
  • Green Space - define appropriate growth and preservation areas to protect open space, agricultural land, and natural resources -- especially water supply and quality

Triangle Tomorrow formed the Reality Check Action Committee to lead implementation. Task forces were formed around each guiding principle had completed the following by fall 2009:
  • The Action Committee was meeting with city and county governments and others, asking them to endorse the Guiding Principles for Quality Growth.
  • The Transit Task Force focused on garnering support for HB 148 and will continue to work on transit initiatives.
  • The Vibrant Centers Task Force was working to promote vibrant centers through education about compact development, walkable communities, and mixed use development that balances jobs and housing.
  • The Green Space Task Force had convened representatives from the 15-county region to expand and update our GreenPrint.

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Technical Notes

Economic valuation footnote references:
  1. Transcript of speech given by Rand Wentworth, President, Land Trust Alliance. Available at: Retrieved April 14, 2010.
  2. Economic Impact of North Carolina’s Natural Resources. One North Carolina Naturally. Available at:
  3. Greenwood, J.B. & Vick, C.G. (2008). Economic Contribution of Visitors to Selected North Carolina State Parks. North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources: Division of Parks and Recreation.
  4. The 2006 Economic Benefits of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife Watching in North Carolina. (June 30, 2008). Prepared by Southwick and Associates, Inc. for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
  5. Press Release: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. (Sept. 3, 2008) Raleigh, NC. Hunting and Fishing Have Major Economic Impact in Tar Heel State.
  6. Economic Impacts Fact Sheet. North Carolina Birding Trail. Available at: Retrieved April 17, 2010.
  7. North Carolina Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, 2008 Annual Report. Available at: Retrieved April 14, 2010.
  8. North Carolina Division of Forest Resources
  9. De Brun, C. T. F. (eds.). (2007). The Economic Benefits of Land Conservation. The Trust for Public Lands.
  10. Daily, G.C. & many others. (undated). Ecosystem Services: Benefits Supplied to Human Societies by Natural Ecosystems . Retrieved April 30, 2010.
  11. Madsen, T. & Ouzts, E. (2006). Air Pollution and Public Health in North Carolina. Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center. Available at:

Parks & Nature Recreation :: Natural Area Recreation :: Proximity to Parks
Environmental Education :: Environmental Education Centers :: Community Colleges :: State Curriculum
Environmental Choices :: Green Buildings :: Transportation Choices :: Waste and Recycling Practices