Ngaumatau Road
Photo by Stephen Day

What a wellbeing framework means for access to the outdoors

Budget 2019 introduced a new way of measuring success. Rather than looking just at GDP growth it also considers other indicators such as child poverty, mental health, and water quality. Treasury has grouped these indicators into four new types of capital; financial, human, natural, and social.

We can measure well-being by assessing how much an action contributes to those four capitals.

The Wellbeing Budget

The Budget did not provide new funding for the Walking Access Commission. But the well-being approach and the four new capitals offer a ‘transformational’ opportunity to reassess how we measure the value of public access to the outdoors.

People exploring the outdoors will welcome this year’s new funding for protecting and restoring the natural environment and the increased funding for recreation spending at the Department of Conservation.

But an equally significant implication of this Budget for advocates of public access to the outdoors is the introduction of the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework and its use of the four capitals to measure wellbeing.[1]

For those advocates, it means a new way of talking about the value of tracks and trails. Tracks and trails contribute to well-being, and the four capitals, in a multitude of ways.

  • They encourage people to take part in recreation, and in society more generally, as a form of transport, connecting people to places.
  • They are physical capital. Many local communities use them to support their economic well-being by building tourist businesses around them.
  • They connect us to our natural environment.
  • And, importantly, they connect people and communities in a way that underpins our cultural identity — access to the outdoors is a stereotypically integral part of what it is to ‘be a Kiwi’.

Recreation Aotearoa has been studying the relationship between the Treasury’s measurement of wellbeing and recreation. It notes that outdoor recreation is “both a means to an end (health, fitness, therapy) and an end in itself (fun, satisfaction).”[2] We can describe access to the outdoors in the same way.

The future

In this Budget the Government chose to focus on six indicators of wellbeing: mental health, child wellbeing, Māori and Pasifika aspirations, building a productive nation, transforming the economy, and investing in New Zealand.

Providing access to the outdoors contributes to some but not all these goals. But next year, the government may focus on different indicators of well-being as defined by Treasury’s four capitals. What will matter is not how a department or budget line sits within its overall vote allocation but how the money contributes to the totality of a country’s wellbeing as defined by the Government’s current goals.

Outdoor access, tracks, and trails are in a good position to respond to this novel approach because the value they offer cuts across many departments and ministries. Tracks and trails are good for health. They are good for sport and recreation. They are good for transport, education, conservation and the environment, Māori, and, notably, the Treasury.

Transport — human and physical capital

Walking and cycling (active transport) — which good public access and trails support and encourage — are popular and important forms of transport. About 10 % of New Zealanders used active transport as their primary form of commuting to work on census day 2013.[3] But New Zealanders also walk or cycle for many other reasons than commuting. These include leisure, shopping, education and keeping other people company. NZTA estimates New Zealanders make 1.1 billion trips on foot each year.[4]

This number could be much higher. As Education Gazette noted, “a 2016 study conducted by AUT concluded that 96 % of children would prefer to walk or cycle to school; however, data from the Ministry of Transport shows that the number of 5–12-year-olds walking to school decreased from 42 % in 1989 to 29 % in 2014”.[5]

Mental and physical health — human capital

Research shows that access to the outdoors improves physical and mental wellbeing.[6]

For instance, environmental scientist Roly Russell and others note that the balance of evidence shows conclusively that knowing and experiencing nature makes us happier, healthier people.[7]

And Minister Grant Robertson speaking in his role as Minister for Sport and Recreation rather than Finance Minister, said physically active Kiwis are more likely to have good mental health.

“A review of international literature submitted to the New Zealand Government Inquiry into Mental Health showed that physical activity reduces the chance of experiencing depression by 10 % in children (5-18 years), 22 % in adults (18-64 years) and 21 % in older adults (65+ years).”[8] 

Sport NZ notes that walking is New Zealand adults' most popular sport or physical activity. 59% of people walked in the week Sport NZ surveyed them, 20 % went running, 7 % road cycled, 4 % mountain biked, and 4 % day tramped.[9]

Good public access, tracks and trails enable this vast number of New Zealanders to stay active and healthy in the outdoors.

Regional economic growth — financial and physical capital

Tracks and trails are a vital economic resource for regions. New Zealand has some amazing tracks and trails. They bring trampers, mountain bikers and outdoor recreationists into small towns that otherwise might struggle economically.

The Old Ghost Road, a shared walking and cycling trail, now draws over 10,000 people to the West Coast each year. Those visitors spend cash on accommodation, food, coffee, tourism and shopping. The economic gains are both proven and powerful.[10]

MBIE estimated in 2016 that the New Zealand Cycle Trail Ngā Haerenga contributed over $35 million to the economy each year — much of it to regional economies that needed local investment and opportunities.[11]

For every dollar spent on the cycle trails, $3.55 of annual benefits accrued. These benefits included revenues from international and domestic visitors. The cycle trails helped revitalise small communities, increased and expanded the number of local businesses, and created jobs close to the locality of the trails. They also helped reduce mortality, provided commuting benefits and cost savings from diseases associated with physical inactivity.

Walking trails have a similar economic benefit to the country.

Connection to the whenua – social and natural capital

For Tangata Whenua connection to ancestral land, water, wāhi tapu and other taonga is a matter of national importance (as legally defined in s 6(e) of the Resource Management Act). The land and the water supports all people, plants, and wildlife. Māori assert their identity in relation to land and waterways.

Other New Zealanders place similar cultural and spiritual value on our land. Many see access to New Zealand’s outdoors as a defining cultural right for citizens.

The relationship between people and the land goes both ways. As we noted above there is growing scientific evidence that exposure to the outdoors is good for people, physically, mentally, and culturally.

There is also some evidence that spending time in the outdoors is good for the environment because it exposes people to the environment and so increases awareness of environmental issues and turns them from abstract issues to personal ones.

A recent University of British Columbia study showed that “87 per cent of study respondents who played outside as children expressed a continued love of nature as young adults. Of that group, 84 per cent said taking care of the environment was a priority”.[12]

Tracks, trails and outdoor access also contribute to people’s ability to play. Playing is an important social connection between people and it also enhances people’s creativity, resilience, wellbeing, and emotional relationships.[13]

Playing in the outdoors will not be the right type of play for everyone but it is available for everyone. It is an inclusive type of play. No matter age, gender, ethnicity or the many other factors that distinguish us, most of us can stand in a puddle, admire a bird in a tree or explore a path.  New refugee migrants should have as much access to this playful connection with the land as people who have lived on it for generations.

A nationwide network of tracks trails and good public access to the outdoors ensures that New Zealanders have access to spiritual, educational, and physical connection with the environment that we treasure.


[1] Treasury (2018), Our Living Standards Framework. Retrieved from

[2] NZRA (2019) Insights Report 3 - Recreation and the Wellbeing Framework

[3] Massey University Environmental Health Indicators NZ (2019) Main mode of transport to work on Census day. Retrieved from

[4] NZTA National Pedestrian Project (2000) New Zealand pedestrian profile. Retrieved from

[5] Education Gazette Issue 97, Number 10 (2018) The School Commute on Foot. Retrieved from

[6] Walking Access Commission Ara Hīkoi Aotearoa (2019) Outdoor Access is a pathway to good mental health. Retrieved from

[7] Russell R, Guerry AD, Balvanera P, Gould RK, Basurto X, Chan KM a., et al. Humans and Nature: How Knowing and Experiencing Nature Affect Well-Being [Internet]. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 2013. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-012312-110838

[8] Sport NZ (2018) New research confirms physical activity is tied to healthy mental wellbeing. Retrieved from

[9] Sport NZ (2018) Active NZ Main Report, page 52. Retrieved from

[10] New Zealand Herald (2017) Ghostly West Coast trek pulls the crowds. Retrieved from

[11] MBIE (2016) NZ Cycle Trail Evaluation Report 2016. Retrieved from

[12] (2017) Children who play outside more likely to protect nature as adults, Retrieved from

[13] Kresser, Chris (2019) 10 benefits of play. Retrieved from