As a public health issue, the global pandemic of COVID-19 poses a serious threat to the built environment and human health 1. Epidemiological data from the World Health Organization showed that, as of August 31, 2021, the cumulative number of reported cases worldwide was nearly 216 million and the cumulative number of deaths was nearly 4.5 million. Under the influence of COVID-19, many countries have adopted lockdown to impose different levels of restrictions on people’s activities 2,3. In China, university students successively returned to school from the fall 2020. Still, the outdoor activities of students were limited in most universities in order to prevent the potential spread of the epidemic 4.
Under this circumstance, some university students experience the reduction of social activities and encounter other troubles, such as financial stresses and academic frustrations, which may cause negative outcomes regarding emotional and mental health 5. A recent research addressed that approximately 45% of Chinese students had mental health problems during the COVID-19 period 6. In fact, even before the COVID-19 period, university students’ negative emotion and mental health problems were commonplace due to time pressure, competition, and the pressure to achieve good academic grades 7.
According to psychological emotion theory, emotions are caused by appraisals of the characteristics of events 8. As one of the most important indicators of mental health, positive emotion is considered to alleviate psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety for university students, which in turn have a positive impact on their academic performance and quality of life 9,10. On the other hand, several studies have shown that individuals who exhibit high level of negative emotion often show more distress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction 11,12. Hence, there is an urgent need to effectively employ preventive measures to help students with emotional regulation 13,14.
The campus green spaces (CGSs) include lawns, woods, and other landscaped spaces available to university students, which are the main place of contact with nature for students in Chinese universities 15–17. The CGSs as the primary places provide spaces for students where they could conduct outdoor activities and get rest and recovery to meet the emotional and psychological needs under the mild regulations for controlling the spread of COVID-19 18. The psycho-evolutionary theory suggests that people’s emotions can be positively affected by observing the natural environment 19. As proven in previous studies, the exposure to green space is strongly associated with students’ emotions 20,21. A significant positive correlation between students’ perceived naturalness and their restoration and health has been evidenced 17, which indicates the effect of perceived naturalness in regulating emotions. van den Bogerd et al. (2020) has summarized the restorative effects of the CGSs on university students’ emotions, including “reducing harm”, “restoring capacities” and “building capacities” 22. Therefore, the CGSs in university where students can rest, relax, and meet friends can facilitate to evoke their positive emotion.
Although green spaces have similar characteristics to a certain extent, it is not reasonable to regard the perceived naturalness of the CGSs in different areas as the same on students’ restorations 23. Conceptually, the perceived naturalness in different regions are localized with cultural, social, and environmental contexts 24, involving place attachment and landscape preference 25,26.
At present, university students in different regions of China have experienced different periods of lockdown. The perception of naturalness, emotions, and level of stress are affected by the regulations depending on the varying intensity of COVID-19 spreads 27. Thus, comparative research in different social and environmental contexts will help broaden our understanding of the relationships between perceived naturalness and emotions and mental health of university students. However, few published studies have compared the different effects of perceived naturalness on emotions across different regions. Studies have not yet explored the potential effects of perceived naturalness of the CGSs on university students’ emotions and the related mediate effects of place attachment and landscape preference in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This study aims to explore the hypothetical effects of place attachment and landscape preference in the relationship between the perceived naturalness of CGSs and university students’ positive emotion under the restriction policies and regulations to control the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. We comparatively investigate the hypotheses considering the social and environmental differences between two universities in Hunan and Heilongjiang provinces, China. Due to the different epidemiological conditions during the COVID-19 period in China, these two universities were imposed control regulations with different intensities. The findings are expected to provide up-to-date contextual insights into the relationship between perceived naturalness and positive emotion, and to systematically understand the mechanism that perceived naturalness in CGSs evokes the student’s positive emotion. Furthermore, the implications are expected to help the planning and management of university green spaces for improving the mental health and wellbeing of university students.