This was written by Laurence D. Wiseman, Co-Leader, Vibrant Cities Lab:
Back in the days with no air conditioning and screened windows, I spent most of my summers messing around Sligo Creek – a nice chunk of nature just a couple hundred yards from my house. My kids had to travel a bit further, and their kids a bit further still. But all are drawn, like I was, to just being “in the woods.” I’ve visited forests in all 50 states, three territories and several other countries. I doubt my sons will match that. But I hope they don’t miss by much. My mind’s clearest when the air is cleanest. And that’s almost always in and around trees.
More than two centuries ago, citizens of Philadelphia petitioned their mayor to plant trees in the public squares “because it is an established fact that trees and vegetation … contribute … to the increased salubrity of the air.” They’ve been making the same argument ever since.
So, what’s changed after 226 years? Science has built a vast body of research that proves the case for cleaner air and so much more. Roger Ulrich’s landmark study in 1984 demonstrated that hospital patients with rooms overlooking trees and nature recovered more quickly than those who didn’t. Gina Lovasi determined in 2008 that children living in areas with more street trees have lower prevalence of asthma. Even children with attention-deficit-disorder show restored attention and concentration after spending time in nature. In fact, a recent study published by faculty from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that living near trees and green space extends life expectancy by about 12 percent.
No surprise then that doctors today have begun prescribing “time in nature” as part of their therapies for children and adults. One of the early “prescribers,” pediatrician Dr. Robert Zarr of Washington, DC, sees “a broader movement in this direction. But the speed with which the movement is growing is largely limited by the resources available to spread the gospel, do the trainings and the followup. There’s no barrier of understanding. Nature therapy is slowly weaving its way into the culture of medicine.”
One needn’t be a physician to prescribe time in nature as part of medical practice, not to mention critical to healthy living. Often other community leaders, parks professionals and hospital systems will push for change. But gathering the momentum that’s needed will depend on additional informed, aware and active public champions.
The Vibrant Cities Lab, a free resource supported by the Urban and Community Forestry arm of the U.S. Forest Service, can help all of us learn more about how trees and green space make for healthier communities – exactly the kind of places where people want to live, work, learn and, yes, play.
Laurence D. Wiseman formed CenterLine Strategy after a 29-year career as founding president and CEO of American Forest Foundation. In 2010 he received the Legacy Award from the Arbor Day Foundation, for career achievement in forestry. Since then he’s served as Chair of the federal National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council and helped design and implement major urban forestry projects.