The health benefits of nature have been well-established. From improved well-being to a reduction in respiratory illnesses, access to green space is crucial to improving public health in urban areas. The problem, according to Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, is that “nature is still not an integral part of our healthcare system.”
Konijnendijk van den Bosch, along with his wife, Matilda van den Bosch, are professors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Their research focuses on trees, green spaces, and public health in urban environments.
“The impact of trees and green spaces on our public health will be the number-one selling point for our profession in the next years,” Konijnendijk van den Bosch told arborists at the International Society of Arboriculture’s (ISA) annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Studies published in prestigious journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), BMC Public Health, and Nature affirm the health benefits of nature. Summarizing the research, Konijnendijk van den Bosch said tree canopies and green space can reduce the health gap caused by socioeconomic inequality; and lower rates of ADHD, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, depression, and overall mortality while boosting cognition and happiness.
“There’s so much potential in these benefits,” but they are not being widely translated into our healthcare systems, despite all of the credible research.
Konijnendijk van den Bosch noted the World Health Organization’s new guidelines for access to green spaces, and pointed to cities like Toronto, which implemented a shade policy, as examples of progress. Still, there is a gap between ambitions and action.
“Things are happening here and there. Step by step,” he said. “It’s not a major campaign. It’s not a movement of integrating green space and trees into our healthcare systems.”
So far, urban foresters have failed to promote the public health benefits of their work. Konijnendijk van den Bosch gives a number of reasons for this: cognitive bias; barriers between research and practice; unbalanced messaging on issues like outdoor safety for children and the risks posed by nature; and competing interests for already cash-strapped city budgets.
So what can urban foresters, landscape architects and designers, and advocates do to inject nature into the discourse on healthcare?
“We have to change people’s mindset,” he said.
First, Konijnendijk van den Bosch argued, medical professionals and urban foresters need to build alliances. “If you want to get this message across, if you really want to be successful, you need to the doctors. You need them to tell the story,” he said, citing the credibility that comes with having a medical degree. While a number of pioneering doctors are already prescribing time in a park, the medical education system does not yet teach the preventative healthcare benefits of green spaces.
Second, urban foresters need to build strategic partnerships with organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a cross-disciplinary approach.
Lastly, more public outreach can raise awareness of nature’s health benefits. But we need to be creative about fostering deeper emotional connections with nature. Take Amsterdam, for example. The city lost many of its Elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Now there’s a perfume that bottles that now-nostalgic scent. It’s a marketing tactic that’s “tapping into something. It’s tapping into people’s emotions,” he said.