by Richard J. Magill, MLA, ASLA, LEED – Magill & Associates, Inc.

This is the fourth in a series of six articles that will explore the various interactions and outcomes that result from human contact with our urban forests. This article will investigate the impacts of our city forests on human psycho-social benefits.

“People and plants are entwined by threads that reach back to our earliest experiences, as individuals and as a species”.

Psychological Benefits
A widely accepted and influential theory by S. Kaplan (1995) called Attention Restoration Theory proposes that natural environments and vegetation can assist in the functioning of human attention. Kaplan theorizes that daily life includes tasks that require long periods of directed attention, and that the execution of these tasks can be enhanced by views of nature. Urban forests provide a restorative escape from the activities that require directed attention by allowing people to rest their minds and effortlessly contemplate their environment. Studies have shown that:

  • People with views of nature from their work environment as less frustrated, more patient, have greater enthusiasm for their job, better health, and overall have a generally higher life satisfaction than those without contact with nature.
  • Those without views of nature in the workplace complain 23 percent more often of illness than those with views of nature.
  • Urban forests have proven to help children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). A study conducted in 2001 by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory (HERL) demonstrated that ADD symptoms are more manageable after activities in green settings, and that the more a child’s everyday environment includes contact with nature, the more manageable their ADD symptoms are in general.

Health Benefits
In addition to the psychological health benefits mentioned above, trees can also affect the physical health of a population. Kathleen Wolf at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington has explored the idea that trees and parks can help urban dwellers to make better, more active choices about their routine activities. Ms. Wolf asserts that with an aesthetically pleasing urban forest, people are encouraged to walk in their neighborhoods during their daily activities or for recreation. This not only encourages physical activity which can help reduce obesity and weight-related diseases, but it also increases possibilities for healthy social interaction.

psycho social benefits of city forest

Other heat-related health problems, such as heat-stroke, dehydration and skin cancer are mitigated by the urban forest’s ability to moderate the temperatures created by the urban heat island. Trees can also help decrease respiratory ailments caused by air-borne pollutants by lowering pollution levels in urban environments.
Urban life can be extremely demanding often resulting in stress-related health issues. It is widely accepted that urban open spaces and parks can provide welcome relief from stress, allowing us to calm and cope, and ultimately recharge our ability to carry on.

Crime Reduction
The Human-Environment Research Laboratory has conducted multiple studies determining that trees can actually help reduce crime. Frances Kuo and William Sullivan, the two primary researchers at HERL, suggest that trees reduce crime in two important ways.

  • First, frequent encounters with nature can help to sooth violent temperaments. As discussed above, trees help to mitigate mental fatigue which can cause outbursts of anger and potential violence in some people. HERL studies have shown that residents living in areas with trees use more constructive methods to deal with conflict.
  • Second, trees deter crime by increasing surveillance on city streets. People tend to use spaces with trees more than they use treeless spaces. Vegetation on or adjacent to streets encourages more people to use the outdoor space, thereby defending the community from crime. There is an “implied surveillance” even if people do not frequently use the vegetated space because a well-groomed neighborhood indicates that the residents care about their home and community, signaling that an intruder could be noticed or confronted. In addition, people perceive neighborhoods with blighted streetscapes and unhealthy urban forests as threatening and dangerous. Therefore, healthy urban forests can significantly decrease feelings of fear and consequently reduce incidents of crime and violence.

Improved Community Interaction
According to HERL, a greater number of people use common spacers with trees than those without. People are also more inclined to spend time in common spaces as the number of trees populating those spaces rises, creating increased opportunities for positive community interaction. Furthermore, residents who actively participate in caring for trees and vegetation in outdoor common spaces are more likely to have strong social ties to their neighbors. The more residents socialize with their neighbors, the stronger the sense of community pride and identity. The urban forest provides neighborhoods with a unique and stimulating location for human social interaction.

psycho social benefits of urban forest

In a series of large-scale, highly controlled field studies (Kuo and Sullivan 2003), “greener” buildings and spaces were consistently characterized by better performance on a wide range of social ecosystem indicators. Trees and grass cover were linked with greater use of residential outdoor spaces by adults and children, healthier patterns of children’s outdoor activity, more social interaction among adults, healthier patterns of adult-child interaction and supervision, stronger social ties among adult residents, greater sense of safety and adjustment, lower levels of social disorder (such as graffiti), fewer property crimes, and fewer violent crimes. In other words, successful outdoor spaces are pivotal in the healthy social ecology of a community, and trees are a key element in creating effective outdoor spaces.

Next article: The Urban Forest and Health and Safety

Citygreen designs and manufactures innovative structural soil cells which provide un-compacted soil to provide valuable nutrients for trees and other plants, as well as support for pavements and roads. These soil cells are an effective way to promote a healthy urban forest, and ultimately, beneficial psycho-social interaction.