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We are missing an important value of the urban forest, intangible social services

As managers and stewards of the state’s urban forests we often not acknowledging the important social values. We have a responsibility to not only provide technical assistance in the conservation and restoration of the urban forest, but to better represent and promote all of its values. During the past decade we have made significant progress in using a variety of models to document the role that our urban forests play in providing clean air and water, reducing stormwater flows, reducing energy demand and sequestering and storing green house gases. However, there is a growing body of research that suggests that we are missing this equally important set of values (Vejre et al. 2010).

There is a deep and abiding connection between people and plants. It can be traced back to the earliest periods of human existence. Today’s sprawling metropolitan areas can leave residents detached from nature. This can lead to feelings of stress and alienation, both of which are pervasive in our contemporary urban society.

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What the research says might surprise you

For instance, work and study often require long periods of directed attention that lead to fatigue. Fatigue can result in feelings of anxiety, irritability and an inability to concentrate. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have conducted research on the restorative properties of encounters with nature in urban areas. They found that such interaction counteracts these symptoms of fatigue. They also conducted a survey of office workers with and without a view of a natural setting from their office window to determine rates of illness and worker satisfaction. Those workers without the nature view reported 23% more illness. Workers with the nature view indicated higher levels of job satisfaction, were less frustrated, more patient, and felt more enthusiastic (Kaplan 1989).

The physical environment has a well-documented impact on human aggression. Crowding, noise and high temperatures all contribute to levels of violent behavior. Some researchers believe that these environmental conditions lead to inattentive, irritable and impulsive behaviors that are all associated with violence. Contact with nature has been demonstrated to reduce the level of these behaviors and the incidence of aggression and violence in cities (Kuo and Sullivan, 2001). These same researchers found that green settings relieve the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children. Children were shown to more successfully refresh their ability to pay attention by playing outdoors in green spaces.

Where to find more information

In light of these studies, and others far to numerous to summarize here, the USDA Forest Service – Urban and Community Forestry Program in partnership with the University of Washington have developed a web site, Green Cities: Good Health, which provides an overview of the scientific evidence of human health and well-being benefits provided by urban forestry and urban greening. The web site provides access to the nearly 40 years of research documenting how the experience of nature is profoundly important to human functioning, health and well-being.

While civic leaders may intuitively accept that urban nature is important for public health, this web site presents supporting scientific evidence, confirming intuitions and expanding our knowledge. This science-based evidence can have a significant impact on public policy decisions regarding urban forestry, just as the science-based evidence that urban forest play a direct role in urban air and water management has had over the past decade. Given the consistent expansion of metropolitan areas in our state every bit of nearby nature has the potential to benefit hundreds to thousands of people daily. When we speak of ‘green infrastructure’ and its backbone – the urban forest – we should no longer be limiting our conversation to the bio-physical values but also to the social and physiological benefits that they provide to the vast majority of people living in our nation today.

References

Green Cities: Good Health   University of Washington/U.S. Forest Service

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33(4):543-571.

Verje, H., F.S. Jensen, and B.J. Thorsen. 2010. Demonstrating the importance of intangible ecosystem services from peri-urban landscapes. Ecological Complexity 7(3):338-348.