In this paper the function of protected nature in rural living environments is discussed in relation to residential choice, appreciation of the residential environment and rural development policy. In five case studies a comparison is made between the situation of protected natural areas in the Netherlands, England and Spain. The research results show that protected natural areas are an increasingly popular endogenous quality of rural regions as they have the ability to influence the residential choice and satisfaction of households. Therefore, they have not only become an important driving factor in the attraction of residential and other consumption-orientated activities towards rural areas but also need to be considered in policy formulation. After all, choices have to be made when different functions need to be combined in rural areas. Different activities may have both positive and negative effects on each other and regulatory measures are needed to tune their co-existence. For a sustainable and balanced development of rural areas it is therefore very important to create basic conditions that will make the combination of activities possible within the specific national and regional contexts.