Trees and science: Part 3 of 3
By Kathleen Wolf, Ph.D., TREE Fund Trustee
3: Trees and Health- A Bridging Opportunity
About a decade ago my research program pivoted to a focus on human health and wellness. In just this short time the knowledge base about these topics has expanded to 1,000s of peer reviewed articles, published by investigators all around the world. My scholarship in nature (including trees) and human health has led to fascinating discussions and collaborations with medical providers, public health officials, community leaders, public school officials, and philanthropic organizations.
I often serve as a portal to the science of nature and health, offering summaries of health benefits that align with specific interests of the audience. I observe that nature and health messaging is particularly effective in engaging people who are outside of green industries and may not have thought much about the role of trees in their communities. I recount the evidence of tree and forest experiences and responses of reduced stress and depression, improved mental health, healthier baby birth weight, better child development and less crime. I observe people being deeply thoughtful and often sharing emotion-filled stories of experiences that resonate with the evidence.
Across my career as a social scientist I have fielded some interesting questions and statements about research design concerning social and health dimensions of urban forestry. These range from curiosity about methods beyond surveys to outright dismissal of the very notion that one can discern patterns in human response to outdoor places. Fundamental to my work is the question, ‘what is science?’ which I routinely ask of graduate students. Surprisingly, the response is often topical; science is about trees, or water, or fire, or wildlife etc. I then proceed to introduce my belief that science is a systematic process, driven by inquiry, to build knowledge.
Understanding people and how they respond to nature, is not only possible, but is arguably essential to address fundamental societal issues.
Some scientists dedicate their careers and passions to basic science, building understanding about underlying processes and causal pathways. The science of ‘how’ and ‘why’ concerning arboriculture and urban forestry tends to be more applied, moving to near-term practical translations for best practices. Given the complexity of urban settings and human communities there is value in recognizing how integrating social, health and biophysical sciences can play a role in supporting city trees. In some situations broader appeals build support, in other situations specific guidance addresses tree care and needs. While TREE Fund will sustain its funding mission and focus on tree research, other evidence-based messaging can bring greater attention to trees, including the importance of financial support.
Thank you, Dr. Wolf, for your insightful information.