Linking urban nature with human health and well-being

WASHINGTON, DC — The livability of a town or city is often defined by the availability of parks, forests, gardens and other natural settings that support an active lifestyle. Indeed, there is a growing conviction that this “green infrastructure” is as important to prosperous and sustainable communities as roads, trash removal and other essential services.

Photo: Green, leafy trees flank a wide suburban street.
Street trees can capture air pollution. Courtesy photo by istockphotos.com/anouchka.

The new USDA Forest Service report Urban Nature for Human Health and Well-Being summarizes the best available science to help natural resource professionals, planners, architects, educators, health professionals and community advocacy groups effectively communicate the health benefits of nature to their constituents. The report provides an overview of current research in five key areas: pollution and physical health, active living, mental health, stress reduction, and social health, cohesion, and resilience. Key findings from the research show a wide range of effects:

  • Trees in city green spaces improve air and water quality, mitigate the heat island effect, shield people from the sun and cut down on noise.
  • People who exercise in open spaces tend to do so more energetically and for longer periods than those who only exercise indoors.
  • Time spent in nature increases cognitive performance, lowers rates of anxiety and depression, and alleviates symptoms of other conditions such as attention deficit disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • City-dwellers who live near green spaces have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, and report lower levels of stress than those who live in areas without green space.
  • Communities that create and steward natural resources show increased social connections and higher levels of civic engagement.
    Photo: People jog along a trail in a city park.
    Research confirms that the availability of parks, trails and nature can positively affect attitudes toward being active and encourage physical activity. Courtesy photo by istockphotos.com/alija.
  • Neighborhoods with higher socioeconomic status often have greater access to urban green space. Equal access to nature may help remediate some of the health disparities between low- and high-income neighborhoods.

The report can be accessed on the Vibrant Cities Lab, an innovative multi-faceted web platform that can help professionals, policymakers, planners, and the public access the best available science, understand the value of investing in our urban and community forests, and take concrete steps to build better, more effective and efficient urban and community forestry programs.