The Reason to Expand Urban Forests: Our Health

Green for good project at St. Margaret Mary Elementary School / LouisvilleKY.com

A new research report from the Nature Conservancy argues that for just $8 per person, the U.S. could maintain and then significantly expand the tree canopy of American cities, an incredibly cost-effective investment in public health.

While high-profile urban tree planting campaigns like New York City’s get a lot of attention, most U.S. cities have experienced a decline in their urban forests, with a loss of about 4 million trees each year, or about “1.3 percent of the total tree stock.” The Nature Conservancy builds the case for recommitting to expanding our urban canopies for health reasons, instead of just letting them slowly diminish.

The many benefits of trees are well-documented: they clean and cool the air, combat the urban heat island effect, capture stormwater, mitigate the risk of floods, boost water quality, and, importantly, improve our mental and physical health and well-being.

According to the report, the U.S. Forest Service and University of California, Davis found that “for every $1 spent in Californian cities on tree planting and maintenance, there were $5.82 in benefits.” Another study found that for every $1, benefits ranged from $1.37 to $3.09.

In particular, urban forests can help catch harmful particulate matter in their leaves and reduce “ground-level ozone concentrations by directly absorbing ozone and decreasing ozone formation.” High levels of particulate matter and ozone can trigger asthma and cause other respiratory problems. Planting trees to deal with these issues in New York City alone could result in $60 million in health benefits annually.

Researchers are more closely examining how trees fight air pollution. In Louisville, Kentucky, Green for Good is now testing a “vegetative buffer” at the St. Margaret Mary Elementary School designed to filter the particulate air pollution coming off a nearby heavily-trafficked roadway. Initial results show that “under certain conditions, level of particulate matter were 60 percent lower behind the buffer than in the open side of the front yard. Among the health study participants, immune system function increased and inflammation levels decreased after planting.”

A Harvard Nurses Study found a 12 percent reduction in all-cause mortality for those who lived within 250 meters of a high level of greenness. And an exciting study now underway will look at 4 million Kaiser Permanente members in Northern California with the goal of determining if there is a relationship between healthcare use and the proximity and amount of nearby tree canopy.

Despite all the great research, the news still hasn’t reached the general public or even arborists. This is reflected in the fact that average U.S. municipal spending on urban forestry has fallen by more than 25 percent since 1980, to around $5.83 per urbanite today.

If the 27 largest American cities instead reinvested in their urban forests, “planting in the sites with the greatest health benefits (the top 20 percent of all potentially plantable sites in a city)” the cost would be around $200 million a year. Maintenance funds would also need to increase. The total gap between current realities and this needed reinvestment in our communities’ health is only $8 per person — so in a city of one million residents, $8 million.

Trees just get a tiny share of municipal budgets. But with these arguments backed by numbers, the hope is a relatively cheap investment in trees for public health — which would also result in so many gains in livability and property values — can win greater support.

New Campaign Needed to Bring Urban Nature into the Healthcare System

ASLA 2012 Landmark Award. Village of Yorkville Park by Schwartz Smith Meyer Landscape Architects, Inc. and PWP Landscape Architecture / © Peter Mauss / Esto

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.

A Powerful New Therapy: Climbing Trees

Dr. John Gathright climbs a tree with students, as part of the TreeHab program / John Gathright, Tree Climbing Japan


Climbing trees isn’t just for able-bodied children and adults. Dr. John Gathright believes it can be an inclusive form of therapy with the power to foster positive emotions in people of all physical and mental abilities. 

Gathright is the founder of Tree Climbing Japan, an organization that uses tree climbing as rehabilitation for physically-challenged people to overcome pain while improving well-being, mobility, and strength.

“I believe that trees are our friends, teachers, and doctors,” Gathright said at annual conference of the International Society of Arboriculture in Washington, D.C.

The inspiration for his new therapeutic approach for people with disabilities came from a 57-year-old woman named Hikosaka Toshiko. Gathright met her before he was involved in field of tree climbing at a signing event for a book he wrote about achieving your dreams. She is physically challenged and uses a wheelchair. She told him her dream was to climb the world’s tallest tree and asked for his help. Gathright agreed and, in 2000, after three years of preparation, Toshiko was ready to take on a 250-foot tall giant sequoia. It took her over an hour to get a quarter of the way up.

“She had the goal of reaching the top of the tree, and it took her three and a half hours to get half way,” he said, recalling her reaction when, after over five hours, she made it to the top. “She said, ‘I’m here. I’m not a cripple. I’m a challenger. Thank you, tree. Thank you, everybody.’”

Gathright wanted to then empower others with physical and mental disabilities. Through his work with Toshiko, Gathright developed TreeHab, a set of adaptive, therapeutic tree-climbing techniques.

“People said climbing had physiological and social benefits, that when they climbed trees they didn’t feel pain. The people who were depressed and had anxiety changed in our programs,” Gathright said, relaying testimonials from people who climbed.

But there was a lack of research on the subject, so Gathright went back to school to get his PhD at Nagoya University to prove the science behind the program. He conducted a study monitoring subjects’ brain waves and stress hormones as they climbed a live tree compared to when they climbed a concrete tower in the same forest.

“We wanted to know how people’s bodies changed with the trees,” he said. “We discovered climbing a tree and a concrete tower in the same forest produced very different and measurable physical and physiological results.”

He found that tree climbing had a masking effect on internal pain, and that positive emotions were enhanced while negative emotions were decreased in subjects climbing live trees, but not when climbing the concrete tower.

His program has helped children to cope with mental and physical trauma by creating a connection to nature and allowing trees to tell their story when they cannot. Gathright also uses the program to educate climbers about tree health and forests and turn them into advocates for forests.

Beyond Japan, Gathright believes there’s great opportunity for this form of therapy worldwide.

“I think it will be huge,” he said. “Look at the demographics: in America alone, 57 million people have a disability. Anxiety disorders — another forty million adults.”

“Portals” Blends Curated with Organic

Portals by Sandra Muss at the Kreeger Museum / Colin Winterbottom

Moving through the pristine vastness of the Great Hall at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. is like being inside a monument on the National Mall. But the museum’s new installation and permanent foray into the woods offers a different experience.

Just beyond the structured lines of the architect Phillip Johnson’s Modernist residence-turned-museum are “the woods.” Far from wild, this curated, yet un-manicured portion of the sculpture garden is found in the forested back area of Kreeger’s 5.5-acre property in the residential Foxhall neighborhood north of Georgetown.

Kreeger Museum / Pinterest

Here are a series of mirrored columns clustered among the oak, maple, tulip poplar, and beech trees, and scattered along a wood chip path. These are the Portals.

Artist Sandra Muss designed the piece specifically for the Kreeger as it expanded its sculpture garden into the woods. Muss’ piece is a series of seven ten-foot mirrored steel rectangular columns, wound with rusted wire and vines.

Portals by Sandra Muss / Colin Winterbottom

Despite the size, the columns are unassuming and easy to gaze over, reading as green foliage when viewed from the concrete walkway that wraps around the museum.

But once down in the woods, the scale of the column becomes more palpable, and what appears from above to be a carefully-curated placement of columns becomes a more compelling maze of reflections. Moving through the mirrors distorts the carefully-orchestrated sculpture garden experience — reflecting, and at times framing, bending, and pulling images of the museum and other sculptures down into the woods.

Portals by Sandra Muss / Colin Winterbottom

The woods are a welcome juxtaposition to the hushed, untouchable quality of the building above and offer a more organic component to the museum’s sculpture garden.

“In general, the planting is pretty simple, because it’s the art that wants to be the focus,” said Julie Patronick, landscape designer with McHale, who designed the forested sculpture garden expansion and worked with Muss to incorporate vines on the columns from the surrounding area.

Ultimately, she said, as new pieces are added to the forest, the intention will be to let the art decide its surroundings — be it exposed with only ground cover underneath, or more hidden, and seamless like Portals.

Cities and Biodiversity Hotspots on Collision Course

422-Cities-in-hotspots-over-300K-pop-2
The western hemisphere’s conflict zones / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on a crash course with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.

Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.

Some 142 nations preside over biological hotspots. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.

Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.

But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land.

globe
What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.

Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.

At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the other issues.

Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.

Read Weller’s summary of the research.

Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

On a tour of the new town, which will add 480 homes, including some assisted living cottages, to the 1,400 that already house some 3,500 people, Serenbe founder Steven Nygren explained how his vision of wellness was inspired by the sustainable Swedish city of Malmö. He and his wife Marie traveled there, and they brought back lots of photographs, which they then gave to their planners, architects, and landscape architects.

The community now under construction is organized around common spaces set in gardens. Nygren fears a scenario in which you have two older residents out on their porches, but both are waiting for the other to invite them over. In Mado, the ground-level shared patios may create more opportunities for interaction.

Also, Nygren reached an interesting conclusion from his trip to Malmö: “They always connect streets into nature.” He decided to recreate that relationship in Mado, organizing the housing and common spaces along a central axis with ends that extend into nature trails.

Mado development plan / Rhinehart Pulliam & Company, LLC

Once this central organizational structure was decided upon, they brought in landscape architect and University of Georgia professor Alfred Vick, ASLA, who then created an innovative “food forest” to realize the concept of wellness in landscape form (see the bottom portion of the image above). It will function as an accessible outdoor living room, given throughout the space the gradient is less than 5 percent. It’s also a place where people can gather and also learn how to forage in the wider Serenbe landscape (see a close-up of its design below).

Mado food forest / Solidago Design Solution, Inc.

Vick said his vision was of a “edible ecosystem, an intentional system for human food production.” Using the natural Piedmont ecosystem as the base, Vick is creating a designer ecosystem of edible or medicinal plants, with a ground layer, understory, and canopy that also incorporates plants with cultural meaning and a legacy of use by indigenous American Indian tribes.

He imagines visitors to the forest foraging for berries, fruits, and nuts, including serviceberries, blueberries, mulberries, and chickasaw plums, as well as acorn and hickory nuts, which can be processed and turned into foods. Mado residents and chefs can harvest the young, tender leaves of cutleaf coneflowers, which are related to black-eyed susans. Or reach up to an arbor, which will be covered in Muscadine grape vines and passion flowers. Or take some Jerusalem artichokes, which were used by Cherokee Indians and today cooked as a potato substitute. Or pluck rosemary or mint from an herb circle. Vick left out peach and apple trees because they require fungicides.

“The primary goal is to engage residents,” Vick explained. There will be interpretive guides to explain how plants can be consumed, which will also “help encourage wider foraging when they are out in the Serenbe landscape.” Nygren wants everyone in the community connected to the productive cycle of nature and to know when the serviceberries, blueberries, figs are ready to be picked.

And the landscape is also designed to both provide a safe boundary — so grandparents can let kids roam — but also provide a natural extension into the rest of the landscape. While the Mado designs are still being developed, we hope that universal design principles, which call for fully-accessible seating and nearby restrooms, will be incorporated to ensure an 80-year old as well as an 8-year old can comfortably access and enjoy the landscape.

Learn more about Serenbe in this interview conducted with Nygren in 2015.

Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press
Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.

But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”

He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.

Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog

But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.

Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner
Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner

We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.

Paley Park / Pinterest
Paley Park / Pinterest

So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.

Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet. 

Brazilians Use Olympics to Deliver Climate Message

2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC
2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC

The estimated 3.3 billion people who watched the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, saw a beautiful and compelling case for fighting climate change. Brazil, which is to critical to global efforts, given its stewardship of the Amazon rainforest, decided to use its big moment on the stage to make the message clear: climate change will impact us all, and we must all do something, even if it’s simply planting a tree.

In the beginning of the ceremony, the Amazon was depicted as the great web of life, a multi-layered network, which is really how a forest functions, according to biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus (see image at top). We then see dancers from the indigenous tribes of Brazil symbolically managing the forest resources in sustainable ways.

olympics2

But later, we see the forest come apart, as its colonized by the Portuguese, as their ships slice through the sea of greenery. In the ceremony, dancers dramatized the conflict between the native forest dwellers and the Portuguese, between the stewards of ecology and the forces of extraction and trade.

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics

We then see dancers representing the millions of slaves brought over from Africa. Then we see how the forest was further broken down, turned into farms, and, finally, urbanized.

As the ceremony progressed, dancers moved off stage and the Brazilian Olympics organizers shifted the focus to educating the world about what the climate models predict, displaying this data showing global temperature increase.

As the narrator states — “the heat is melting the ice cap; it’s disappearing very quickly — an animation displays, showing what a melting North Pole will mean for the world’s waterfront cities, including Amsterdam, Dubai, Lagos, Shanghai, Miami, and, finally, the home of the 2016 Olympics.

After the doom and gloom, a child then walks through to the middle of the stage and sits down next to a sapling, which itself glows, spreading the web of life once again. The answer to climate change, according to the Brazilians, is to protect and renew our forests. 

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics.org
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics.org

The ceremony is a reminder that much of the world is very worried about climate change and has moved way beyond any controversies around the science. According to the Pew Research Center, majorities in 40 leading countries say climate change is a “serious concern,” and 54 percent say it’s a “very serious concern.”

While the ceremony may help educate the world, its message may also be directed at some key local audiences. Environmental officials in Brazil have been fighting a tough battle against cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers who continue to engage in illegal burning and clearing of the rainforest and must have powerful political backers who protect and enable this. And the message may also be aimed at international donors who can bolster Brazil’s fight to save the forest; it’s a plea to ask them to do more to help this developing country.

Deforestation in the Amazon just hit the highest levels in 8 years, with 240,000 acres destroyed in June 2016 alone. About 19 percent of the total Amazon rainforest is gone. It’s clearly time to geo-engineer the planet in a sustainable way: let’s regrow the lost forest and then plant billions more trees. 

2016 Environmental Performance Rankings Show Progress and Failure

Deforestation in Brazil / Wired
Deforestation in Brazil / Wired

Yale University and Columbia University, together with the World Economic Forum, have released the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which tracks how well countries protect human health and ecosystems. According to their analysis, “nearly every country” has improved their “environmental performance” on 20 different indicators over the past decade, while land and marine ecosystems only continue to decline. Countries in Western Europe and North America, which already have fairly high scores, now focus on incremental improvements, but are still gaining, while even China and India have shown significant improvements from 2006. Still, the problems facing both people and ecosystems are massive. More than 3.5 billion people — half of the world’s population — live in countries with “unsafe” air quality, and around 8 percent of the global population still lacks access to clean water. On the ecosystems side: a third of all fisheries are “over-exploited” or have simply collapsed, while, in 2014 alone, an area the size of Peru, about 2.5 million square kilometers, was stripped of trees. Only 15.4 percent of terrestrial habitats and 8.4 percent of marine habitats are protected, far less than the amount Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has called for: 50 percent of the Earth’s surface.

The world’s progress on environmental performance is wildly uneven. For example, the EPI global scorecard shows improvements in access to drinking water. The number of people who lack access to clean water has been cut in half from 960 million in 2000 to 550 million today, even as the population has increased. However, the report also shows corresponding human health failures, namely increasing air pollution. As they argued in 2012, uneven progress is due to different stages of economic development. “As nations become wealthier, particularly in Asia, their governments invest in sanitation infrastructure and fewer people are exposed to unsafe water, leading to fewer deaths from waterborne illnesses. But as countries develop, increased industrial production, shipping, and automotive transportation foul the air, exposing human populations to dangerous airborne compounds.”

In India, which is rapidly developing, 75 percent of the population is exposed to dangerous air every day. And in China, which has quickly become the second biggest economy on Earth, one in five deaths is attributed to air pollution — about 4,000 people every day. While air pollution is a critical issue in China and India, it also impacts people far beyond those two developing countries — some 3.5 billion people, or half the world’s population — live in places where fine particulate matter exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) safe standards.

Wealthy Nordic countries continue to lead the rankings, with Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark at the very top, followed by European countries Slovenia, Spain, Portugal, Estonia, Malta, and France. Over the past decade, these countries show a 5-10 percent improvement in environmental performance, with model Finland improving just 3 percent over the decade, perhaps because it has already achieved such high levels of achievement. Finland, the report notes, recently passed a legally-binding resolution to receive 38 percent of their final energy from renewable sources by 2020; currently, the country already gets two-thirds of its electricity from renewable or nuclear power.

This year, the USA is in 26th place, a great improvement over 49th place in 2012 and 61st place in 2010, and a 10 percent improvement overall in performance over the past decade. President Obama’s administration has made major gains in improving air quality. Over the past decade, the administration has issued new regulations on heavy duty truck fuel efficiency and released new mercury air toxins standards, particulate matter rules, and fuel sulfur rules. President Obama has also stepped up conservation efforts, broadening the world’s largest protected marine preserve, the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument, into a zone that now covers 490,000 square miles. The U.S. has done poorly on protecting its forests though, according to the index. Canada is ranked at 25, just one spot above the US.

China, the world’s second biggest economy, is ranked 109, up from 116th place in 2012. Its performance has improved nearly 13 percent over the past decade — its air quality and sanitation and waste water treatment efforts have led to gains over the past decade. And, India, the world’s most populous country, is in 141st place, slipping from 125th place in 2012, but improving 20 percent over the past decade, largely because of its improvements in sanitation and waste water treatment.

The report identifies most-improved countries — which include Comoros (48 percent), Sao Tome and Principe (38 percent), Egypt (37 percent), Djibouti (36 percent), Timor-Leste (33 percent), Lesotho (32 percent), Tanzania (31 percent) — but all are below 100 in the rankings, so they start from relatively low points. Among middle-income countries, Ukraine, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Jordan, Greece, and Croatia have also showed big gains.

One of the few criticisms of this heroic analytical effort is the report could better highlight some of the most destructive underlying trends — namely the unabated destruction of the world’s forests, ecosystems essential to all life on earth. A stunning set of statistics: the world has lost 18 million hectares of forest each year since 2000. “The rate of global forest loss has increased in the past 15 years, up 19 percent in the period 2012 to 2014, and 42 percent compared with 2001 to 2004.” Forests, as they explain, are threatened everywhere, but most in danger in Brazil, Indonesia, the Mekong Basin in Southeast Asia, and Congo Basin in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014 alone, tropical forests lost 9.9 million acres of trees, an area the size of South Korea. Brazil has made strong pledges to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 but deforestation rates rose 16 percent last year. In other parts of the world, there aren’t even pledges to slow the destruction, as palm oil plantations and livestock farms replace forest.

Towards the end of the 100-plus-page report that accompanies the index, the team from Yale and Columbia return to their core argument, which is humanity is dramatically undervaluing the planet’s ecosystem services, and, as a result, slowly destroying its ability to sustain itself. As the authors note, “a recent study estimates that the loss of ecosystem services due to land use changes worldwide was worth between $4.3 and $20.2 trillion a year. These services contribute twice as much to human well-being than the entire gross domestic product” of the world. The authors note that a number of policymakers “already consider global biodiversity loss to be a serious threat to economic growth.” These forward-thinking policymakers understand that without forests and essential ecosystems, there is no global economy.

The EPI argues the only way forward is to decouple economic growth from the destruction of ecosystems. Natural accounting, which measures and includes the value of ecosystem services, must become the norm among governments and the private sector. Without the incorporation of the real economic value of the environment, it will be impossible for policymakers to make decisions about sustainable natural resource use. Natural accounting can be used to make the case for conservation and also restoration — what’s needed if we are to have a sustainable future.

Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest Protected from Logging

Great Bear Rainforest / The Huffington Post Canada via MyLoupe/UIG/ Getty Images
Great Bear Rainforest / The Huffington Post Canada

In a landmark deal that took 20 years to reach, Canada will protect over 7.7 million acres of one of the world’s last intact temperate rainforests in coastal British Columbia. The deal protects 85 percent of the rainforest, an area about half the size of Ireland, while leaving 15 percent open to loggers who must comply with the highest sustainable forestry standards. The rainforest is home to the Spirit Bear, a rare cream-colored black bear, wolves, salmon, orcas, and miles of old-growth forest. The deal was made with 26 First Nations, which are Canadian native tribal groups, environmentalists, forest product companies, and the British Columbia government, which all called it a model of sustainable forest management. The agreement is seen as a win for the First Nation groups, who will now get a greater share of the proceeds from timber than in the past.

The deal sets new rules for timber harvesting: some 2.5 million cubic meters of forest in designated logging zones can be harvested each year. Of that amount, only 750,000 cubic meters can be cut from old growth trees. This amount may sound like a lot, but it will be 40 percent less than in the past.

In The Globe and Mail, Rick Jeffery, president and CEO of Coast Forest Products Association, called the agreement a success because it creates more certainty for the wood and paper industries. “We know what the rules are, we know what areas are going to be set aside for protection, and what areas we are going to be operating in. Knowing we have that, people can start to invest in their mills, training, and capacity. That’s the first level of certainty. The second part is that First Nations have more tenure and we are in a better position to build on those partnerships.”

Mongabay outlines the long history of conflict leading up to the agreement. In the mid-1990s, “amid growing industrial logging operations in rainforests around the world, First Nations communities in B.C. were becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the forests in their traditional territories, to which they often had no legal title. Those First Nations groups were joined by environmentalists in a fierce battle against the forestry industry and the B.C. government until 2000, when all parties came together to call a ceasefire and allow an independent scientific analysis of the rainforest. That process culminated in the 2006 Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, a vision for ecosystem-based management of the rare temperate rainforest ecosystems found in British Columbia.”

With the just-announced agreement, the rights of First Nation communities are further bolstered, two years after a Canadian Supreme Court decision recognized their rights to stop logging in their forests. British Columbia signed 26 separate agreements with the tribes living in the forest, guaranteeing them a greater share of the proceeds from the timber harvest. These groups will now get to keep the funds from 17 percent of the annual allowable cut, up from 7 percent today.

Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and president of the Coastal First Nations, told The Globe and Mail that both environmental and economic sustainability are core values of First Nation leaders and elders. “We know we must respect and care for the land and the water so they can support our communities.”

And Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council, which speaks for eight Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, applauded the deal, but said, alone, it won’t guarantee the long-term economic sustainability of the tribes. He told the The Vancouver Sun his people are looking beyond the agreement, looking at new ways to sustainably generate income, like “clean energy projects,” eco-tourism, and selling carbon credits for protected trees. Millions of tons of carbon are stored in those old-growth forests.

The new deal will also end the commercial hunt of Grizzly Bears within the First Nation territories of the Great Bear Rainforest, which account for about half of the total forest, but not in areas owned by the government. Ecologists have highlighted how critical Grizzly Bears and Spirit Bears are to the ecological functioning of the rainforest. BBC News explains how bears catch salmon from the rivers as the fish return home to spawn. The bears then take the salmon into the forests to eat, leaving the carcasses. When the carcasses decompose into the soil, they release much-needed nitrogen crucial to plant growth. Some 80 percent of the forest’s nitrogen comes from decomposing salmon.

Spirit Bear on Griddell Island, Great Bear Rainforest / Nature Conservancy
Spirit Bear on Gribbell Island, Great Bear Rainforest / Nature Conservancy

There are still some critics who think the conservation agreement could have gone much further. Ian McAllister, with environmental group Pacific Wild, told The Vancouver Sun that the annual destruction of 2.5 million cubic meters of forest every year can’t be considered a win for the environment. “We simply have to find a faster transition towards the full protection of our remaining ancient forest.” A group of scientists also wanted the 20,000-hectare Gribbell Island, which is essential Spirit Bear habitat, completely protected, but it was left out of the deal.

The conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest is largely a win for the environment, but many more countries need to also engage all stakeholders in creating ecosystem-based management plans for their remaining forests. According to Yale University’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index, the world has lost 18 million hectares (44.5 million acres) of forest annually since 2000. That’s five Great Bear Rainforests every year. So many countries continue to destroy their forests unabated — with Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa at the top of the list. As these forests are destroyed, unknown numbers of rare, niche species, perhaps less charismatic than the Spirit Bear but still incredibly valuable, face extinction.