Nature and Mental Health
When naturalist and essayist John Burroughs (1837-1921) said “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order,” he couched it as a personal experience. Burroughs might be gratified to see the wave of research suggesting that the restorative powers of nature have a more universal quality. In May, Mental Health Awareness Month, our features introduce a scientist whose work sheds light on how nature affects mental and physical health, an urban climate adaptation guide that acknowledges the role of forests in healthy minds, and research aimed at developing silvicultural strategies for restoring forested natural areas in urban areas so that they survive to restore future generations of city dwellers.
Forest bathing can help improve your mental health. Get started by visiting our partner site, Kids in Parks.
For Research Social Scientist Michelle Kondo, getting out in nature is a family tradition. Her paternal grandfather was a fish wholesaler in the coastal town of Maizuru in Japan, and her maternal great-grandfather was a ranger in the Olympic National Forest. Growing up in Seattle, she spent many weekends with her family at local parks (rain or shine) or camping in the forests or beaches of the Pacific Northwest.
While marine science was an early interest, she ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating, Kondo worked in environmental consulting, writing environmental impact statements for large water supply/wastewater management projects in the California Bay Area.
“While I liked civil engineering, I wanted to work at a broader scale, on systems of infrastructure and related policies,” said Kondo. This led her to enroll in a graduate degree program in urban design and planning. After graduate school she realized she was more interested in conducting research than teaching, and that the field of public health provided many research opportunities that spoke to all of her interests.
“In Philadelphia, I had a postdoctoral fellowship to apply an epidemiological research method to assess the impacts of the city’s green stormwater infrastructure program on violence, which is a significant issue facing many of Philadelphia’s communities,” Kondo said. She was subsequently hired as a scientist with the Forest Service and was able to continue to apply this type of research approach to understand the role of nature-based and place-based interventions on public health.
While “nature therapeutics” were a large practice around the turn of the 20th century, the practice declined significantly with the advent of medical knowledge and medicine. But doctors and health providers have again begun to try to emphasize the importance of getting outdoors for good health with their patients. Kondo is really excited about multiple projects that aim to advance the science around nature prescriptions.
“There are so many research questions surrounding this growing practice, and I am working with a local group of pediatricians at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to revive and evaluate their NatureRx program,” said Kondo. “I am also collaborating with a group of scholars from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia to investigate what kind of nature prescriptions are available, who participates, and how acceptable, accessible and affordable they are.”
More about Michelle Kondo >>
Silviculture in the City: Urban and Climate Adapted Management Strategies for Forested Natural Areas in the Northeastern U.S.
Patches of forest dotting the urban landscape are easy to take for granted. These are forests at their most informal: natural areas within a city reflecting different ownerships and varying degrees of health, use and stewardship. Nevertheless, encountering nature in a forest patch can be as powerful an experience as visiting a national park. “People are really getting a wilderness experience in the city,” said Nancy Falxa Sonti, a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station.
Sonti knows this first-hand. Her career with the USDA Forest Service began at the New York City Urban Field Station, where her research included assessing the social benefits of natural resources. Her work, and urban research by many Northern Research Station scientists over many years, underscores the restorative power of interacting with nature. Time spent in nature, even scrappy little forest patches, can reduce stress and improve mental health as well as improve physical health.
Sonti is part of a team that is developing climate-adapted management strategies tailored for urban forest patches. The term “forest patches” might suggest a limited landscape, but the northeastern corner of the United States has more than 250,000 forests that are larger than 2 acres in size. Many of these forest patches are in cities.
What do climate-adapted management strategies for forested natural areas look like? Research is still in progress, including on a 10-acre, long-neglected forest patch in Baltimore owned by Stillmeadow Community Fellowship Church where Sonti and Research Ecologist Rich Hallett are testing an approach that Hallett calls “anthropogenic succession.” In rural forests, “natural succession” is the process in which the mix of species present at a given place change over time.
At Stillmeadow PeacePark, Sonti, Hallett and their team designed an approach to succession that is more hands-on, including the removal of dead and dying trees (a task that church and community volunteers took on) and planting newly cleared areas with fast-growing species such as willow and poplar to prevent invasion by non-native plants. The vision is to regenerate an oak forest, but starting that effort by planting slow-growing oak seedlings opens the door to fast-growing, opportunistic invasive plants.
“What we are learning at Stillmeadow PeacePark is helping us develop silvicultural strategies for restoring forests in an urban environment,” Sonti said.
View the webpages - Stillmeadow PeacePark & Forest: An Experiment in Rehabilitation of a Degraded Urban Forest and Silviculture in the City: Urban and Climate Adapted Management Strategies for Forested Natural Areas in the Northeastern U.S. >>
Climate Adaptation Actions for Urban Forests and Human Health
Bracketed by pavement, buildings, and parking ramps, urban forests face harsh growing conditions that are exacerbated by a changing climate. Climate change is stressing people, too, a fact that is recognized in a recent report aimed at helping cities adapt forests to future climate scenarios. The report, Climate adaptation actions for urban forests and human health, was published in 2021. The report’s lead authors were Maria Janowiak and Leslie Brandt of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS) in collaboration with Kathy Wolf of the University of Washington and American Forests.
The report synthesizes a wide range of peer-reviewed research on climate change and urban forests, culminating in the presentation of nine strategies for adapting urban forests to climate change. One of these, “Promote mental and social health in response to climate change,” offers another perspective – how urban nature can improve human resilience to climate change. “Having a place to go that is green and open really does improve people’s mental wellbeing,” Brandt said. “As the effects of climate change become more apparent, these areas will be even more important.”
The “Promote mental and social health in response to climate” strategy includes two approaches to applying nature to mental and physical health: provide nature experiences to ease stress and support mental function; and encourage community and social cohesion to support climate response. The report’s authors developed examples of tactics cities could use to implement each alternative. Designed to be used throughout the United States with an emphasis on regions with temperate forests, the menu includes a broad range of strategies covering social equity in climate adaptation, urban silviculture and ecology, planning for urban natural resources, and residents’ mental health and physical health.
While authors designed the menu to be flexible enough to be used by communities with different objectives and budgets, they emphasize the need to integrate multiple strategies. “Urban forests are part of a complicated landscape, and adaptation strategies have to bridge many different disciplines,” said Janowiak.