Finding Connections to the Outdoors for Youth and Families in Larimer County, Colorado


Larimer County, Colorado | Design Workshop Inc. | Client: Great Outdoors Colorado and Larimer County, CO


Across the nation, children lack access to nature. In fact, the result of the decline in nature-based activities is so significant, it now has a name: Nature Deficiency Disorder. Some sources suggest they are outside less than 50 percent as much as they were ten years ago. The reasons for this decline are not well understood. The focus of the Larimer County study is to understand the underlying patterns for the decline and the barriers to nature connections. Analyzing existing community structures with the application of spatial data has helped determine how the physical organization of cities either encourages or discourages interaction with natural areas.


In an effort to understand how best to connect families and children with nature, the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund (GOCO), a state agency tasked with granting $135 million annually to preserve open space, increase recreational opportunities and educate the public about the value of land resources, sponsored research in a pilot study. The program, initiated in Larimer County, Colorado, employed a collaborative research method between academic and non-profit instututions, government entities, and private researchers, using empirical data and geo-spatial analysis. A scientific literature review, program provider data, and demographics were analyzed to determine why individuals and families do not interact with nature. Based on these results, GOCO now has the ability to understand the effectiveness of alternative granting and funding strategies.

The research was designed to answer the following questions in order to find ways to meaningfully re-engage children, adults and families with nature:

1) Is Nature Deficiency Disorder the result of physical constraints limiting access to natural areas, or is it related to social changes created by digital media, limited time or disinterest?
2) What are the root causes of a community’s lack of interest in, or dissatisfaction with, programs and statewide offerings?
3) Within rural, suburban and urban neighborhoods, does the desire for nature based activities vary by residential location?
4) Do factors such as ethnicity and income levels determine interest in accessing natural areas?
5) Do the demographics of open space users and the distribution of open spaces within a region influence connections?
6) Are the desired recreational needs properly matched with the funding opportunities available through granting programs?
7) Are there generational norms or behaviors responsible for a decline in the use of outdoor areas, and if so, what do these factors mean for future allocations of open space?

Literature Review

A review of published academic literature including over 400 articles, reports, book chapters, and other documents was completed to better understand public use of open space and recreation amenities. The review was organized into four categories: a) connections to nature, b) benefits of nature based experiences, c) barriers to these experiences, and d) current trends and issues. These areas merit more attention, as there have been only four academic studies completed in the last eight years focused on this subject. The benefits of being in nature are well documented, and are increasingly studied by health organizations and educators because of the greater educational success, health and well-being, lower obesity levels, increased self-esteem and social acclimatization, and increased confident decision-making processes contact with nature fosters. The literature review references travel distance and the perceived danger of traveling outside of a ‘comfort radius’ as significant physical constraints to open space access. The popularized idea that media and digital diversions, including television and computers, contribute to the decline in nature-based experiences, however, is not supported in any of the academic studies reviewed. The evaluation of barriers to participation in nature specific activities is a relatively new area of focus and investigation. The literature review helped define human behaviors and ideas related to nature. It identified quantitative research that links behavior and open space, physical constraints and social changes, documenting completed studies. However, these studies suggest little in the way of solution-oriented interventions at policy and regional design levels.

Research Methods and Analysis

The investigators analyzed data obtained from over 2,000 participants, through survey methods and focus groups with educators, parents of children with developmental and physical disabilities, bilingual groups, low-income groups, rural communities, youth groups, child and health care professionals, and local and state level outdoor program providers. User patterns and activity demands for outdoor recreation facilities, parks, trails and open spaces were evaluated to determine resident attitudes and behaviors. An extensive Geographic Information System (GIS) database was employed to correlate participant responses with actual physical characteristics, allowing demographic and physical data to be spatially displayed and measured simultaneously. Existing parks and open space data was used to review lands selected by survey participants as preferable locations for outdoor experience. Routes and access to parks and open space facilities were evaluated for their ease of use and travel safety. Cognitive mapping exercises were employed to develop detailed characteristics of access data and to cultivate an understanding of how the organization of neighborhoods and cities affects nature and use relationships.

Predictive GIS models and forecasts of future land use patterns were developed based on historic factors that have influenced urbanization in the region. This research design allowed the visualization of the future landscape. In particular, it pinpointed the points of conflict between development patterns and the areas visualized as having the highest value for outdoor experiences.

Research Findings and Significance

In order to re-engage children, adults, and families with nature, strategies that address physical barriers must be considered in tandem with programming that considers social changes. While a large majority of Larimer County’s population (79%) has expressed a desire to connect more often with nature, factors like cost, access, time constraints, concern for children’s safety, awareness of where to go and program opportunities, and the right program activities at the right times are major constraints that contribute to lack of participation. According to this study, users value time and convenience over many other factors. Close proximity to and convenient locations of parks and open space are also vital factors for increasing frequency of use. In the analysis of residential neighborhoods, urban features such as interstate highways, major urban streets, interruptions of trail and sidewalk networks, create physical accessibility conflicts for users, dampening their desire to seek outdoor opportunities. The commonly held belief that digital media has distracted users from connecting with nature was not singled out as a major barrier to nature-based experiences.

Based on survey results, information related to nature-based experiences is not readily available to the first time or infrequent user. Parents do not receive the same level of communication and information exchange for parks and recreation opportunities as they do for organized sports programs. In contrast to the fully supervised environment of a typical school setting (e.g. classroom, fenced playground), parents have safety concerns about physical distances from homes to parks, and the effects/perceived dangers of coming into contact with strangers outdoors. Most importantly, survey responses indicate that lack of participation is due to fear of unwanted social contact and questionable safety.

The geography and physical characteristics of neighborhoods, communities, and regions were found to influence the connections of residents to nature. Small parks with nature areas that allow exploration are appropriate responses in urban locations and serve as a gateway for children to become interested in and feel comfortable in larger natural and wilderness settings. If the nature based opportunities were available in the appropriate land settings, high satisfaction was noted by respondents. In the cognitive mapping exercise, the specifics of localized physical situations were accumulated to form a reliable correlation between locations of open space with frequency of use.

The relationship between incomes and ethnicities in Larimer County and the distribution of existing open space areas was tested. Neither ethnicity nor income plays a significant role in the equality of distribution or access.

Researching the availability of potential natural areas not currently available to the communities, GIS methods allowed the investigators to pinpoint land with natural characteristics that people want to use and that will increase their outdoor experiences. Land for future acquisitions, conservation easements, and use agreements between governmental agencies were identified and linked with demographic data, data gathered about attitudes, unfulfilled needs, accessibility, and future development, forming the baseline for areas not well served today. The research provides a way for GOCO to evaluate the efficacy of future grant and funding programs and confirms that grant policies and expenditures for open space acquisitions and improved accessibility are the best tools for increasing connections to nature.

The GOCO pilot program provides the most comprehensive regional analysis of the disconnect between youth and nature to date, and offers recommendations. Policy adjustments that help create the foundation for these connections and encourage open space additions and programming changes must be considered. The project’s scalable process model and replication manual can be utilized throughout Colorado to guide communities in understanding current levels of connections between families and the natural world, considering ways to enhance these connections, locating gaps and barriers that prevent such connections, and finding opportunities to link people to nature more often. Key metrics are now defined and can be tracked to ensure accountability and measure achievements over time. With the applied research gathered, Landscape Architects charged with designing parks and open space, Community Planners, and Managers of open space, can enrich their designs and programs. The study advances the understanding of Nature Deficiency Disorder, and supports the idea that solution-oriented interventions can help foster healthy emotional, social and intellectual connections to the great outdoors and re-engage people with nature in specific neighborhoods, communities, larger cities, and entire regions.

"It’s important for the future of our children to get them outside exploring and experiencing. . . This is the kind of project that we need to be thinking about it"

- 2014 Awards Jury



Richard Shaw, FASLA - Principal
Anna Gagne - Project Manager/Planner
Jessie Young - Planner
Sara Egan -Planner

Brett Bruyere, Ph.D - Tembo Consulting, Fort Collings, CO
Carol Adams - StudioTerra, Inc., Boulder CO.
Lisa Evans - Programs Consultant

Project Leadership:
Rob Novak - Larimer County Department of Natural Resources Program Coordinator
Kerri Rollins - Larimer County Department of Natural Resources Program Manager
Kathleen Staks - Great Outdoors Colorado Open Space Program Manager
Jackie Miller - Great Outdoors Colorado Local Government Program Manager
Zoe Whyman – City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Community Relations Manager
Mark DeGregorio – Rocky Mountain National Park Education Specialist