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SE Royston: Rooted Stories: The role of place-based narratives in fostering nature-connection

Faculty: Science and Engineering / Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences

Supervisors: Dr Sarah Royston; Dr Tim Jarvis; Prof Aled Jones

Location: Cambridge

The interview for this project is expected to take place on Thursday 25 April.

Apply online by 3 March 2024

How can stories connect us with the landscapes we live in? How can they enrich our experiences of nature and place? And how can they open up these benefits to communities who are disproportionately excluded from green spaces?

Rooted Stories is an innovative PhD project on the intersections of creative practice, community engagement and nature-connection. The research aim is to examine the impacts of place-based stories on nature-connection and associated benefits, and to draw lessons for optimising these benefits and scaling-up existing schemes.

The research will involve designing, implementing and evaluating three real-world experiments: in each case-site, stories will be developed by local people and embedded in the landscape, where they can be accessed by smartphone.

The impact of these place-based stories on participants and visitors will be measured through qualitative methods such as participant observation, in-depth interviews and surveys.

The thesis will draw insights from this evaluative analysis to support conservation agencies and other stakeholders in widening access to meaningful experiences of nature, place and landscape.

This cross-disciplinary project has been developed by researchers from the Global Sustainability Institute and Cambridge School of Creative Industries, in collaboration with partners including the National Trust, the Chilterns Conservation Board, and digital communications company Hello Lamp Post.

The project offers an exciting opportunity for a PhD scholar to join ARU’s thriving community of researchers exploring creativity and sustainability, and to work closely with national and local conservation agencies and a pioneering technology company.


Connection to nature is correlated with wellbeing, educational outcomes, pro-environmental and pro-conservation behaviours, which have important implications for action on climate change, the biodiversity crisis and other environmental challenges (Seers et al., 2022).

Activities that stimulate emotional and sensory engagement with landscapes can help to promote nature connection (Lumber et al., 2017), and arts and media, including stories, can enrich and encourage outdoor experiences (Butler, 2007; Farman, 2014).

In recent years, smartphones have enabled location-based services, with many people able to access stories linked to GPS locations, play audio/video files, or engage with interactive media as they explore trails, parks or reserves.

Several conservation organisations across the UK (and other organisations promoting access to the outdoors) now offer place-based stories to visitors. However, these bodies often do not have capacity to evaluate scheme impacts.

Also (with exceptions) these schemes mostly:

  • Use factual or information-based content.
  • Are based either in wilderness landscapes or urban centres.
  • Do not explicitly focus on under-represented voices.
  • Commission selected writers to create the stories.

In response to these gaps, this PhD project includes specific focus on:

  • Fictional stories and imaginative engagements with nature and place.
  • Semi-natural environments such as farmland and small protected areas (in particular in eastern and south-east England).
  • Communities who often feel excluded from these spaces, such as young people, Black and Minority Ethnic people, LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities.
  • Local people’s creation of their own stories.

Proposed research approach

The PhD researcher will review research literature on place-based stories and nature connection, and build a database of existing schemes as a resource for other researchers and practitioners.

They will then work with partners to develop and implement new place-based stories in regional experiment sites – specifically, the National Trust Reserve at Wicken Fen (Cambridgeshire), Writtle University College (Essex), and the Chilterns Conservation Board (Hertfordshire and neighbouring counties).

Planning will involve engagement with local stakeholder groups. In each site, one disadvantaged group will be selected for particular focus. However, the emphasis will be on understanding intersectional aspects of nature-connection, including multiple and overlapping identities.

Place-based stories will be generated via a community workshop in each site (including walking-writing workshops), and via open online submission calls. Workshops will be co-led by the PhD researcher and trained specialist facilitators.

Stories will be embedded in the case site locations, with the support of technology partner Hello Lamp Post, through QR codes placed in the landscape.

The process of developing and implementing the experiments, as well as the outcomes for participants and visitors, will be assessed through methods such as participant observation, in-depth interviews and workshop feedback surveys, focusing on experiences of disadvantaged groups.

This ground-breaking research offers great potential for academic publications, impact-focused activities with the project partners, and for the development of future collaborations.

If you would like to discuss this research project, please contact Sarah Royston: [email protected]

Apply online by 3 March 2024

Funding notes

The successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers the tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2023/4 this was £18,622 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.