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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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ROOS, Vera; COETZEE, Hendri  and  PUREN, Karen. People's experiences in a natural environment in the Vredefort Dome, South Africa: implications for spatial development. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2011, vol.51, n.1, pp.68-85. ISSN 2224-7912.

Humans are holistic beings who engage with natural environments on a cognitive, affective and spiritual level. Research has indicated a clear link between physical and mental health and experiences of nature. When people are alienated from nature due to limited opportunities to visit pristine natural environments, increasing development and the ubiquitous availability of technology, psychological health decreases, whilst emotional and even physical health problems emerge. Little information is available on how human behavioural sciences, such as psychology, and spatial disciplines, such as urban and regional planning, can work together to optimise human-nature interaction - especially in rural nature contexts. A close link exists between people and natural environments. Since most of the research on human-nature interaction focuses on restorative interventions to deal with abnormal behaviour, or on broad trends for large groups of people, it is not clear what the spontaneous experiences of people's interaction with natural environments, comprise. The purpose of this study was to explore spontaneous experiences in natural environments with the aim to discuss implications for spatial development purposes. Two questions were used to guide the research, being: What spontaneous experiences are expressed when people are in natural environments? And: How can gained insights from such experiences be used in the formulation of guidelines for the planning of natural, untainted environments? The research was executed at Kromdraai, an undeveloped farm situated in the Vredefort Dome, South Africa. The Vredefort Dome Area falls within the boundaries of two provinces, the North West and the Free State, and the Vaal River, the largest tributary of the Orange River in South Africa and 1120 kilometres long, runs through the area. The natural landscape includes hills and ridges offering displays of vertical rock layers exposed due to the result of the meteorite crater impact, as well as the Vaal River. Abundant vegetation includes 99 identified plant species, while 450 different bird species and 70 butterfly species have been identified and rare fauna such as the rooikat, aardwolf, leopard, and rock dassie are also found. A qualitative research method was used to obtain the data. An intrinsic case study design was used and 12 participants were requested to share their experiences of their interaction with nature. Participants received cameras and maps and were free to walk the farm. They were asked to photograph anything they came across and regarded as important. Afterwards all participants were requested to participate in a focus group discussion. Participants were requested to share the meaning and the relevance of the photo's they took. Two sets of data were obtained and both the textual and visual data were subsequently analysed thematically. The findings showed that the participants' interactions with pristine natural environments emerged on cognitive, affective and spiritual levels. They expressed experiences such as a sense of escape (cognitive freedom); curiosity, hope and feelings of calmness (affective dimension); as well as feeling closer to God (spiritual experiences) in their interaction with nature. The findings also revealed diverse meanings that people hold regarding their interaction with the natural environment. The relevance that the findings might hold for spatial disciplines, such as urban and regional planning, is an indication of the need to be sensitive to the different relational dimensions that emerge when people interact with natural environments. Development should aim to protect the sensitive nature of the meanings that people attach to the natural environment. In addition, it was found that the seeming discrepancy between personal meanings attached and the views of spatial disciplines can be overcome by negotiation - which should be part of informed public participation. Suggestions are made to explore innovative public participation methods to obtain relevant and useful information about the personal meanings that people attach to natural environments.

Keywords : human-environment interaction; contentment; curiosity; emotional and physical safety; hope; sense of escape; spirituality.

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