Panel Examines Healthy Forests, Healthy Lives
By Peter Ewart
A panel discussion was held at UNBC on October 12th that explored the link between the environment and human health, and the importance of preserving our forests and green spaces. It was organized by the UNBC Alumni Association in partnership with the UBC Faculties of Medicine and Forestry, Alumni UBC, and UNBC.
The moderator of the event was Dr. John Innis, Dean of Forestry at UBC, who began by commenting that today is an “incredibly exciting time” for forestry. Many new products are emerging and so is research proving that forests and green spaces are beneficial to human health, and that people who have access to “green space” live longer, healthier, and happier lives.
The panelists included Dr. Pamela Wright (UNBC), Dr. Sandra Allison (Northern Health), Dr. Matilda van den Bosch (UBC Forestry) and Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk (UBC Forestry). Hosting the event was Dr. Paul Winwood, Associate Vice President of the Northern Medical Program at UNBC.
The panelists were all in agreement that having access to forests and green spaces not only helps physical health (cardio-vascular, diabetes, etc.) but also mental health (stress reduction, depression, etc.). The positive effect is in both preventive and reactive health. According to the panelists there is strong evidence that this access helps people recover from trauma and illness.
Even relatively small exposure to green spaces can have a positive effect, with the panelists citing research that shows test scores go up for students when they are in classrooms with windows, and that prisoners are less aggressive and less likely to reoffend if they have windows that look upon green space.
Access to green space for people can also be connected to higher senses of empathy, in that people who have that connection see more the necessity for stewardship and “passing on” of green space and forests to future generations.
Some hospitals and airports, which can be stressful places, are recognizing the positive effects of indoor green space, even if the images are only representations of natural settings. On the other hand, one of the panelists noted that abstract art tends to make people sicker.
Green spaces and forests play a definite role in our sense of place and of belonging.
In that regard, discussion took place on the need for more resources and more specific policy to foster green spaces and forests especially in urban environments, whether that is exposing children to more nature during school time or more legislation and budgeting for forests and parks. If people don’t have access to green spaces, there is less chance they will support them.
That being said, interacting with nature doesn’t take much in a city like Prince George, and can be as simple as spending more time in the backyard, taking a walk down in Cottonwood Island Park or going to Forests for the World for an excursion.
In addition, several of the panelists noted that the medical profession needs to be better informed about the health benefits of green space, as well as the effects on people of climate change. And, for its part, so does the resource sector.
The panel also commented about future research they anticipate or would like to see, including research on:
- barriers and constraints that cause people not to get outside
- problems of the current silo-based decision-making process and the need for more broad-based societal structures that can make green space decisions
- making more health and green space related data available to communities
- early life exposure to green space and its effects on genetics (epigenetics)
The discussion concluded with Dr. Allison stating that we need to collectively view forests as more than just trees, i.e. we also need to think of them as a wealth of health benefits to be passed along to future generations.
Dr. van den Bosch added that our natural environments are the best and most cost effective way to improve health problems, while Dr. Konijnendijk left the audience with the slogan: “A tree on your doorstep, a forest in your mind.”
According to Dr. Wright, there is a lot of “amazing research” being done about the link between environment and human health, and that she looked forward to working with the other guests on the panel.
Northerners, First Nations people, and others living close to BC forests have always known the forest / human health connection intuitively, especially when they experience the “great hush” of the outdoors. So, in regards to the panel discussion, it is good to see this intuition backed up by scientific research.
BC forests are one of our greatest natural treasures in terms of building our communities, providing lungs for the planet and habitat for wildlife, creating new value through manufacturing, anchoring our way of life and sense of place, and, as the panel members emphasized, providing invaluable health benefits for all.
Do our political, economic, and environmental policies recognize the full value of this natural treasure and are framed as such? Are there sufficient resources being allocated, even on such elementary things as reforestation and research funding? There is a lot of reason to believe that, despite some positive developments, this is not the case.
However, the panel discussion October 12th certainly bolsters the argument that this situation must change, and that the connection between forest, green space and human health is a profound one, which needs to be explored and developed much further in both policy and practice.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org