Woods for health

In an era of ever increasing concern about our nation’s physical and mental health, we strongly believe that trees and woodland can play a key role in delivering improved health & wellbeing at a local level. At the same time, the Health & Social Care Act 2012 has passed much of the responsibility for health & wellbeing to upper-tier and unitary local authorities.

Although the relationship between the natural environment and health is a complex one, it is now widely accepted that green infrastructure – such as trees, woods and forests – can help people feel better[i]. Increasing evidence shows how woodland can help encourage more active lifestyles and alleviate the symptoms of some of our most debilitating conditions such as dementia, obesity, heart disease and mental health problems.

This link between woodland and health is now firmly embedded in national Government policy for health, planning and forestry:

  • Health: “Access to green spaces is associated with better mental and physical health across socioeconomic groups…. Defra will lead a national campaign to increase tree planting throughout England, particularly in areas where tree cover would help to improve residents’ quality of life and reduce the negative effects of deprivation, including health inequalities.” Healthy Lives, Healthy People (Government White Paper, November 2010, paras 3.36-37)
  • Planning: Access to high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and well-being of communities. Planning policies should be based on robust and uptodate assessments of the needs for open space, sports and recreation facilities and opportunities for new provision.” National Planning Policy Framework (DCLG, March 2012, para 73). 
  • Forestry: “Our trees, hedgerows, woods and forests contribute significantly to the quality of life in both rural and urban areas. Amongst other things, they enhance the local environment and biodiversity, support economic growth through regeneration, help mitigate the impact of climate change, assist in reducing air pollution and provide important health and educational benefits… The Natural Environment White Paper recognised the value and potential for green spaces to support and contribute to everyone’s health and well-being. This is being reflected in the Public Health Outcomes Framework, which underpins the new public health duty of local authorities’. Government Forestry Policy Statement (Defra, January 2013, p.16).

But when it comes to turning this national policy into local policy and also local delivery the situation is more confused, with local authority Public Health teams and Health & Wellbeing Boards jostling with Clinical Commissioning Groups, Public Health England, NHS England and the National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE) to find new ways of working.

There are of course excellent individual case study examples of woods and trees delivering local health benefits, such as Forestry Commission Scotland’s Branching Out mental health project, but there is an urgent need to mainstream this relationship across the country in local policy and delivery.

At a time of ongoing public budget cuts, such mainstreaming will clearly be a challenge. However evidence suggests that, as well as providing the obvious environmental and biodiversity benefits, woods and trees can also be a cost-effective solution for reducing negative climate change impacts like poor air quality and for supporting local economic growth, as well as promoting healthy lifestyles. There are also great opportunities for positive local community empowerment and neighbourhood planning initiatives in woodland creation and management.

The King’s Fund, an independent healthcare charity, has produced Improving the public’s health – A resource for local authorities, a report that sets out what Local Authorities can do for health together with the business case for doing so. The report says that:

Increasing access to parks and open spaces could reduce NHS costs of treating obesity by more than £2 billion. Access to green space can reduce mental health admissions too, resulting in additional savings for the NHS… Analysis of Birmingham’s city-wide Be Active programme suggests that up to £23 is recouped for every £1 spent, in terms of better quality of life, reduced NHS use, productivity gains, and other gains to local authorities”.

Research by the Woodland Trust shows that less than 15% of the population of England has access to local woodland within 500m of their home. Providing more accessible trees, woods and green space can therefore provide a critical link to healthier lives and, consequently, to saving money. In addition, the Government’s £3.8bn Better Care Fund (previously the Integration Transformation Fund) could support Local Authorities to better integrate green infrastructure like woods and trees into the health sector.

We are therefore keen to meet Local Authorities, together with Health and Wellbeing Boards, in order to discuss the positive role of woods and trees in contributing to a healthier population. Please do get in touch.

After all, life’s better with trees!

Justin Milward, Regional Policy Officer

[i] Hartig, T., Evans G.W., Jamner L.D., Davis D.S., and Gärling T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, 109-123.

Ulrich, R.S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science 224, 420-421.

Van den Berg, A.E., Koole S.L., and van der Wulp N.Y. (2003). Environmental preferences and restoration: (how) are they related? Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, 135-146.

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
This entry was posted in Climate Change and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Woods for health

  1. Pip Pountney says:

    I absolutely agree that green space and in particular large trees and woodlands can contribute to physical health and reduce mental stress. I visit several woodlands managed by the Woodland Trust and always find the experience an ideal opportunity to reflect and walk in quietness. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some community woods where committees have enthusistically taken advice and funding from Forestry Commision and are busy with chainsaws destroying the very resource they chose to protect. Similarly, some Wild Life Trusts are felling our precious mature oaks to chop up as firewood – and selling lucratively for log burning stoves. This boosts their budgets nicely of course but I’m very cynical about their message – ‘its for the wildlife’.

    Personally, I find oserving such greedy and heavy handed methods of woodland management both distressing and stressful and avoid these green spaces whenever possible. This use and abuse of the precious resource of natural living wood should be carefully examined. Waste wood should feed the voracious appetites of wood burning stoves and you just need to look at the contents of skips outside houses or in the bins at the local tip marked ‘wood products’ to see what an accessible and renewble resource this is for firewood. Woodlands require minimum intervention and should be left for everyone to enjoy.

  2. Paul Hunt says:

    Thank you for a great article at a time when I’m focusing my walking business on the health & well being dimension and I applaud the Woodland Trust for providing the Places for people to go. Also the good work by those local authorities who have already adopted the need and provide good network of suitable paths and places like parks.
    I hope the policies and campaigns succeed in engaging people to get out there and they don’t flounder from lack of public participation. So many campaigns appear they could have more success and better ROI with more private sector involvement rather than leave entirely to the public and voluntary sector. My experience is that there is an “audience” who want to get out but they prefer not to want to overburden the local authority or health sectors..
    I will be doing what I can to provide an interface between People and Places and always happy to learn of opportunities to collaborate with authorities and organisations championing the cause..

  3. June McCarthy says:

    More tree cover could significantly help to reduce flooding, and the resultant toll of mental and physical stress which impacts the health of those at risk of, and affected by, flooding..

  4. Ash says:

    As above, woods for health, physical & mental!

  5. Peter Kyte says:

    Trees and open spaces help people to reconnect to nature and can only have a beneficial effect on health and the local economy.

  6. Yes, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? We all need trees for so many reasons; for our own health, for the health of nature, for the very survival of the planet. A massive government-funded programme of tree-planting would give jobs to countless people, and healthy jobs at that. Imagine how many men and women would rather do this than sit behind a desk at some pointless paper-shuffling job. Ah, but here’s the catch – where is the benefit to The Economy, which we must feed at the expense of all other considerations…..allegedly.

  7. daphnepleace says:

    I’m so pleased the Woodland Trust are embracing this. There’s a rising constellation just now of interest (and research) into ‘Nature Deficiency’ from the psychological/emotional aspects, as well as the more obvious physical. I like the survey which reported improved mental health in post-op recovery patients who could see trees from their hospital bed, and then again when they could access a small woodland garden. I would go even further than this, and say that our spiritual health suffers from lack of contact with the natural world. So, time to go outside and do some tree hugging!

    • I strongly agree with Daphne,
      Many people enjoy the small shrubbery at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle.Other patients enjoy seeing trees in quadrants at North Tyneside General but there is no garden.
      Residents at Dene Park House, South Gosforth, Newcastle enjoy a small garden near the Ouseburn. I used to take dementia clients to parks and garden centres where they could see children and animals and enjoy the flowers and eat a small lunch, tea or ice cream and chat to other diners.

  8. Robin Walter says:

    Hello Justin, Very glad to see you promoting Trees for Health.

    You may be interested in the FC guide I helped write: “Greenspace Design for Health and Well-being” available here http://www.trees-for-transition.co.uk/design_guidlines.html This design guide would be useful for Local Authorities wanting to improve their facilities for public health. There are lots of good examples, before and after pictures and extensive references.

    We also collated a set of Case Studies for FC Scotland here: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-8T9D46 These show how health facilities throughout UK have used greenspace and trees to support their health provision.

    Hope that is helpful
    Thanks
    Robin Walter

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