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Do trees improve mental wellbeing and reduce stress?

Can trees improve wellbeing

Can nearby trees improve mental wellbeing and reduce stress?

Interesting new research has shown how greener front gardens can reduce stress. The study, undertaken by Sheffield University, highlighted how adding just a few plants in a bare front garden could reduce stress levels, equivalent to eight weekly mindfulness sessions. Reading the study led me to look at other recent research in this field. It was great to see a burgeoning and varied evidence base on the impact of greenspace on wellbeing, with many studies focusing on the impact of urban trees.

It dawned on me it’s been ten years since my own research, Flourishing Trees, Flourishing Minds – looking at the impact of nearby trees on improving mental wellbeing – was presented at the Institute of Chartered Foresters, Trees, People and the Built Environment Conference – and subsequently published by the Forestry Commission.

What struck me – other than how fast ten years have flown by – was how much research has been undertaken in the last decade and how this is now driving current policy decisions and health interventions.

A recent review of evidence on the social benefits (such as health, wellbeing, and social integration) of urban green spaces was conducted by researchers from Sheffield Hallam University and The University of Sheffield. This found 385 relevant research papers published within the last ten years, with the overwhelming evidence showing that green spaces support mental wellbeing and stress relief.

The last decade has also seen the concept of Forest Bathing move from a relatively obscure ‘alternative’ approach to human health and wellbeing, to to a major field of study. There has been some exciting research taking place – particularly in Japan – in what has now been termed Forest Medicine.

While academic research has shown how nearby trees and parks reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing, the COVID-19 pandemic has put this research into practice. For many people, nearby trees and green spaces became crucial in alleviating the inevitable anxiety and stress of the pandemic.

Trees have recently been described by the RTPI as vital in supporting public health and wellbeing post-Covid. This month saw the Government provide over £4m for a new scheme aimed at helping the mental wellbeing of communities hardest hit by coronavirus. The project will examine how to scale-up green social prescribing services to help improve mental health outcomes, reduce health inequalities and alleviate demand on the health and social care system. The Environment Minister said: We know that connecting with nature is good for us, and the pandemic has given us an even greater awareness of the link between our own health, and that of our environment.

Flourishing Trees, Flourishing Minds 2011

Looking back at the results of my 2011 study, they are supportive of much of the more recent research on greenspace and wellbeing links. Yet at the time it was unique in several ways:

The study specifically assessed nearby residential trees as opposed to more general ‘greenspace’. Most previous related work looked at how greenspace can reduce stressed or mentally fatigued individuals; this research did not look at how nearby trees may alleviate negative mental states but how they encourage positive mental states. The study was also the first to use a nationally standardised measure of mental wellbeing to assess the impact of surrounding trees, and the scale has since been successfully applied in other related studies.

Following the study, I was very happy to be contacted by Ming Kuo, who pioneered the ‘natural experiment’ approach that my project tried to emulate.  Ming Kuo strongly encouraged me to get the paper published in an environmental psychology journal, and was kind enough to offer to assist in preparing it for submission. Following this, I did make inquiries to the editors of a some related journals, but as the paper had already been published, the consensus was that it was not eligible to be published again.

The paper may have had more of an ‘impact’ had it been published elsewhere – or maybe not. Either way, I’m content with the research being freely accessible as an Official Publication Research Report of the Forestry Commission; and I’m hopeful the paper made a contribution, however small, to the evidence that nearby trees can improve the lives of people.

The ‘Flourishing Trees, Flourishing Minds’ research paper developed from my final year research project in the MSc in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry. Looking back, I’m very grateful, for the support of Dr Mark Johnston MBE, who supervised the dissertation, and Jon Cocking of JCA Ltd, who generously gave me time off my then work to undertake the project. I’m most grateful to the tenants and staff at Chevin Housing (now Together Housing) who kindly allowed me to knock on their doors and talk.

The publication of the study broadly coincided with me setting up an arboricultural consultancy. This inevitably changed my focus, from arb-academia to the coalface of managing urban trees. As such, it’s been interesting to delve back into the research that’s taken place since 2011, which has shown, beyond doubt, that trees can improve mental wellbeing and reduce stress.

I'm a Chartered Arboriculturist at AWA Tree Consultants Ltd. As well as detailing our recent tree survey and arboricultural consultant work, this blog includes wide ranging arboricultural musings, including tree facts, opinion and anecdotes on trees in human culture.

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