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Living Close To Trees Comes With A Number Of Health Benefits
Why does the science of well-being always seem to suggest our societal design is terrible?
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I’ve been reading health and well-being studies for over 15 years now. On top of that, I’ve been training in the field of nervous system health and trauma for 3 years. As I gain all of this knowledge I consistently ask: why does our current societal design run contrary to human well-being?
The answer is somewhat obvious I know. Our system creates based on what it incentivizes. If our incentive structures favor profit, our choices and creations will tend in that direction.
And this is why I’ve often stated that we seem to be learning about wellness in order to cope better in our existing system, instead of having the tough conversation which reveals our existing societal design is destroying us.
Well-Being & Trees
Trees are one of nature's many wonders. From a human perspective, they're beautiful to look at, can house animals we love watching, give us shade, and produce fruits that we enjoy.
Humans aside, trees are an integral part of the ecosystem they grow within. From holding soil together, to cleaning the air, to offering nutrients - they’re loved by nature itself.
Looking towards insights on the benefits of trees, a systemic review of environmental research compiled 201 studies and conceptually sorted them into a three category framework to analyze practical benefits. Remember, we’re looking at a lot of studies here showing benefits, not just 1 or 2.
“(1)Reducing Harm, representing 41% of studies, includes topics such as air pollution, ultraviolet radiation, heat exposure, and pollen. (2)Restoring Capacities, at 31%, includes attention restoration, mental health, stress reduction, and clinical outcomes. (3)Building Capacities, at 28%, includes topics such as birth outcomes, active living, and weight status. The studies that were reviewed show substantial heterogeneity in purpose and method yet indicate important health outcomes associated with people’s exposure to trees. This review will help inform future research and practice, and demonstrates why urban forest planning and management should strategically promote trees as a social determinant of public health.”
Taking a closer look at what is meant by each category we can get a better idea of how trees practically play into our well-being.
1. Harm reduction (41% of studies)
Trees in cities remove a variety of air pollutants, reduce some of the negative health effects of pollution (which may also reduce the risk of lung cancer, respiratory problems and asthma, etc.). Their shade helps reduce the risk of heat stroke and improves general comfort when outdoors during heatwaves. This helps reduce the risk of heat-related illness and death during heatwaves.
Some studies also found a reduction in crime associated with the presence of trees. Some researchers posit it’s the calming effect of trees that produces this, while others feel trees promote better social cohesion within a community. But who’s to know for sure?
It is to be noted that benefits from trees vary based on the species, size, location, and health of the trees.
2. Capacity restoration (31% of studies)
In this category studies suggest that when humans are in contact or can see nature (like a forest) they have improved cognition and greater attention. This can also decrease anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue.
Researchers believe that benefits are linked to biodiversity. The more plant species, the more mental well-being.
3. Capacity building (28% of studies)
Finally, it was gleaned that even short periods spent in forests can enhance our immune system, as well as social well-being, and a sense of community. A bevy of trees in cities are also linked to increased physical activity, resulting in decreased obesity and improved cardiovascular health.
From this we can see that trees themselves are sometimes providing direct benefit, while in other cases it’s the presence of them in an area that promotes us to make different choices that lead to health benefits. In some cases, they set the table for wellness.
Some Specific Examples
Research from the University of Exeter concluded that being around trees can make us happier, functioning as a natural antidepressants.
The study found that antidepressants were prescribed less frequently in areas in London which have more trees. To gain this information, researchers gathered data for antidepressant prescriptions across London in 2009-2010 and then compared that data with the numbers of street trees in the same area.
They soon discovered that antidepressant prescriptions were significantly lower in areas which housed a higher concentration of trees.
The idea that trees can have a positive influence over our mental state and wellbeing isn't entirely new. As NatureAndHealth.com reports:
“In Japan, people practise ‘forest bathing’, where they spend quiet time absorbing the wisdom of ancient forests, taking long walks among the trees to stimulate their immune system. In Taoism, students are encouraged to meditate among trees, and it is believed that the trees will absorb negative energies, replacing them with healthy ones. Trees are seen as a source of emotional and physical healing, and themselves as meditators, absorbing universal energies.”
To further study the reasoning behind these practices, Geoffrey Donovan looked at comparable death rates in areas where the emerald ash-borer (a pesky bug) decimated tree populations.
“Well my basic hypothesis was that trees improve people's health. And if that's true, then killing 100 million of them in 10 years should have an effect. So if we take away these 100 million trees, does the health of humans suffer? We found that it does,” - Geoffrey Donovan.
He found that as more and more trees died, deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases increased. A correlation, but an interesting one. Remember, science rarely shows causation definitively, and mostly lives in the land of correlation. This is why critical thinking always remains important.
Furthermore, the USDA's Forest Service has also compiled research that shows people who live around trees are physically healthier:
"About 850 lives are saved each year, the number of acute respiratory symptoms is lower by about 670,000 incidents each year, and the total health care savings attributed to pollution removal by trees is around $7 billion a year."
Interestingly, Wealthier Areas Have More Trees
There is a stark difference in tree coverage depending on the socioeconomic status of a given area. This was found by Tim de Chant at Per Square Mile who used Google Earth to examine various areas:
They found that for every 1 percent increase in per capita income, demand for forest cover increased by 1.76 percent. But when income dropped by the same amount, demand decreased by 1.26 percent. That’s a pretty tight correlation. The researchers reason that wealthier cities can afford more trees, both on private and public property. The well-to-do can afford larger lots, which in turn can support more trees.
As a reminder, we see that trees sometimes have direct benefits while at other times they set the table for better choices and lifestyle habits.
This leads back to my original statement that our scarcity creating societal design is producing the lack of well-being that we are often trying to avoid. We then proceed to avoid acknowledging that the literal design of our system is incentivizing these outcomes because it would mean talking about changing it.
For example, our system is producing poverty by its design through the debt-based monetary system that drives it. It also incentivizes smashing the most amount of housing on a parcel of land as possible given profit drives most business decisions. Think about it, how much incentive truly is there for a builder to profit 50% less by building less houses on a piece of land they buy? This would produce more well-being for people who live there, but our incentive structures don’t promote this behavior from the builder. In some cases, our incentive structures don’t even allow for ‘builders’ to consider healthier options.
As we navigate a time of societal chaos and the implosion of our institutions, developing a more holistic understanding of our societal challenges is becoming a must - especially if we want to effectively solve our problems.
Usually it isn’t a single factor that produces the poor outcomes we’re trying to stop. Something like being near trees or not isn’t going to be the sole deciding factor in whether you are well or not, but it adds to it. It’s part of a complex system.
For example, typically people in lower socio-economic classes experience less well-being because stress is higher, food quality is worse, access to health care is worse, amongst a multitude of other factors - including having access to less trees and positive environments. To solve this, we have to ask how this outcome is being produced in the first place, right down to societal design.
What Can We Take From This?
We have to talk about societal design, but that huge conversation aside. Trees are important - heck, nature is important. There's no denying the therapeutic value that comes from spending time outside and enjoying it. We've all experienced it at one time or another and don't need a study to tell us that.
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Sure it helps to have these feelings move toward being grounded in hard science, but some things we just know and feel to be true. Sometimes it's science that needs to do the catching up.
I believe this illustrates the importance of maintaining green areas in urban spaces as much as possible, and green does not mean grass and bushes - we need more trees, rivers, lakes, and streams to be preserved and designed into communities everywhere.
We need to challenge neighbourhoods and builders to maintain as much green space as possible when building new developments. We've come to accept the idea that we should cram as many houses into one area as possible, but this is only helping to degrade our quality of life further.
Then again, we’re butting up against system incentives again aren’t we?
What you can do to start bringing more nature into your day:
1. Bring plants into your office space or where you work.
2. When going for walks, choose paths where you will be walking through parks or nature with trees. Bike or drive there sometimes if you have to.
3. Bring your friends and family to treed areas more often when you go outside or play with the kids.
4. Plant a food garden. You can connect with your food and with the earth.
5. Plant a tree in your own yard, or multiple trees!
Aside from doing something outside of yourself, well-being truly does begin within you. Learn to connect with yourself in a deep and meaningful way to de-stress, find clarity, and experience ease by taking my 5 Days of YOU Challenge.
Each day you'll get a short video and simple exercise to help.