Ten ways that trees improve the quality of our lives.
Trees give us shade on blistering August afternoons, make cozy dens for families of pileated woodpeckers, yield wood for baseball bats and provide the pulp for the paper on which these words are printed. Almost everyone could make a long list of the many ways trees directly benefit our lives.
It might take a while, however, before they’d think to list relief from stress or increased vitality to our communities. These are just a couple of the social benefits of trees that researchers have identified. The more we study trees, the more we find that there’s even more to gain from them than just firewood, lumber and shade.
Trees as Healers
You are lying in bed in the hospital recovering from surgery and turn toward the window for some inspiration. A view of the air conditioner units on the adjacent roof will not provide as much restorative affect as a view of a more natural setting. You may recover from surgery faster if you can see trees outside your hospital window.
A six-year study of post-operative patients with the same type of surgery in the same hospital showed that patients with views of nature were able to be released a day sooner—eight days instead of nine days—than patients with “barren” window views. What’s more, patients with natural views requested less pain medication, and a study of nurses’ notes confirmed those patients generally reported feeling better.
Another study found that inmates with views of farm fields from their cells requested fewer trips to the infirmary than inmates without a “natural” view from their cells.
Trees at Work
Views of nature assist in the workplace as well. A survey of more than 700 employees in private and public sectors assessed job satisfaction and performance as it relates to views of nature from work stations. Desk workers with views of nature reported almost 15 percent fewer illnesses than those without a view.
Natural views contributed to workers feeling more satisfied, patient and enthusiastic and less frustrated than those whose windows did not provide a view of nature. The more green seen from their windows, the better employees felt. The employees surveyed who had the opportunity to work outside said they felt the most satisfied and least harried.
How is the view from your place of employment? Is there any way to plant some trees?
Planting trees may be one way to turn the vacant storefronts found in many small towns back into thriving businesses. Research suggests trees contribute positively to downtown shopping areas.
A study comparing downtown business districts reveals that people will drive from farther away to shop in tree-lined downtown districts than they will to shop in downtowns without trees. They’ll also spend more time shopping and come back more frequently.
People also are willing to pay more for parking and spend more money on goods and entertainment in downtowns with trees. In fact, downtowns with full-canopy shade trees are perceived as having better character and containing stores with better products and merchants than treeless shopping districts.
Even at 70 miles per hour people benefit from trees. Long or difficult commutes can contribute to high blood pressure and increased illness rates as well as lower job satisfaction. Researchers tracking stress indicators, such as heart rate and blood pressure, found that driving in areas of strip malls tends to boost the incidence of road rage. However, drivers who enjoy views of nature while on the road report less driving stress.
Feeling bogged down? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Plant trees. You’ll feel better.
Researchers found that people in housing surrounded by trees and lawn report that their life issues feel less difficult. They also procrastinate less and have higher attention spans than those whose apartment buildings have no grass and trees around them.
Park users in Cleveland reported that urban forests and parks offered more privacy and tranquility than their homes. To escape crowds, work, home routines and associates, they sought out heavily forested areas with nearby running water or with unpaved paths. They used such places for reflective thought, resting their minds and thinking creatively.
Trees for Learning
Trees improve children’s ability to concentrate and their reasoning skills.
A Swedish study of day care centers found that children attending facilities with natural settings and providing year-round outdoor play under trees had better motor abilities and concentration skills than children at day care centers surrounded by buildings and with less opportunity for outdoor play.
Even the view outside a child’s window has been shown to affect development. One study in a public housing project found that girls with views of trees and grass outside their bedroom have more self-discipline and greater concentration skills than those without a good view.
Boys in the housing project did not show the same differences, likely because they were generally allowed more time outdoors.
In another study, three groups of people were tested on their proofreading skills, then tested again. The first group was retested after taking an urban vacation, the second group after going backpacking and the third group without taking a vacation. Only the group who went backpacking showed improved proofreading scores.
A second study showed that those who took nature walks had better proofreading scores than those who walked in urban settings or those who practiced indoor relaxation techniques.
Researchers also report that students with views of trees and grass from their college dormitories reported better attention skills than students with more barren views.
One in 14 children and many adults suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. ADHD symptoms include restlessness, trouble listening, antisocial behavior, aggression and difficulty focusing on tasks.
A nationwide research project assessed how playing in a “green” environment affects the symptoms of this disease. They found that playing outside in natural environments reduces kids’ ADHD symptoms more than indoor play or outdoor play at basketball courts or skate parks. The more green and natural the setting, the more ADHD symptoms were relieved.
One study participant whose son had ADHD reported the only way she found to keep him in school for the entire day without being sent home for behavioral problems was to let him play in a park for a half hour in the morning before school.
People in housing surrounded by grass or trees exhibited more than 25 percent less household violence than people in housing surrounded by asphalt and concrete. Researchers theorized that green areas help people cope with stress by encouraging them to socialize and giving them places to relax.
A study used police departments’ crime reports to determine that buildings landscaped with trees and lawns had half as many crime reports as buildings without natural landscaping.
The attractiveness of natural landscapes likely accounts for this dramatic reduction. Trees and lawns encourage adults to spend more time outdoors, where their presence and vigilance discourages criminal activity.
Both children and adults reported feeling safer in communities surrounded by green.
Have you noticed how neighborhoods with trees seem to have lots of folks out strolling in late afternoons? You’ll also see more kids playing on lawns, people barbecuing on patios and folks relaxing or working in their yards.
In a study of public housing projects, researchers found that people living in buildings surrounded by green socialize more with neighbors than those living in buildings with stark landscapes. They also reported a greater sense of community with their neighbors.
For the sake of commuters, the sick, your neighbors, coworkers, children, and the vitality of our down town districts—plant and protect trees. They help us in ways we are only beginning to understand.
Find out more about the social benefits of trees at:
Natural Environments for Urban Populations
USDA Forest Service’s North Central Research Station
1033 University place, Suite 360, Evanston, IL 60201
Center for Urban Horticulture
College of Forest Resources
University of Washington Botanic Gardens
3501 NE 41st Street, Seattle, WA 98105
Landscape and Human Health Laboratory
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, IL 61801