Image for We know nature is good for wellbeing – this study digs deeper

We know nature is good for wellbeing – this study digs deeper

A new project is investigating how different types of woodland affect wellbeing, and how planting can be tailored as a result

A new project is investigating how different types of woodland affect wellbeing, and how planting can be tailored as a result

Trees are good for us. Studies show that spending time in nature calms us down, cheers us up, improves concentration and benefits us physically in all sorts of ways. But while the wellbeing impacts of trees are clear, we’re still in the dark as to the particulars: do ancient woodland or hedgerows make us happier? Are deciduous trees somehow more satisfying than evergreens? Does wandering in newly planted woodland have the same effect on our mental health as the sight of a lone tree in a farmer’s field?

These details matter because the UK is currently in the grip of a tree-planting marathon. In order to meet net zero targets and mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis, the government has committed to planting 90m-120m trees across the UK each year by March 2025. This approach is welcome, but in order to reap the most benefit  – for us as well as the environment – precision is required.

“We need to make sure we’re making the right choices around where we’re doing our planting,” says Dr Heather Gilbert, research and evidence manager at the National Forest, a 200 sq mile swathe of rural and urban forest in the Midlands. “We don’t want to be planting for planting’s sake.”

COP26

How do different treescapes affect mental health and wellbeing? Image: Guy Bowden

Which is where Connected Treescapes comes in. This £1.7m, three-year research project run out of multiple universities is looking to answer questions around the value of trees, and the changing relationships between human societies and trees in the past, present and future. One part of this multi-faceted project is Treefest, a research study taking place in the National Forest in collaboration with the University of Derby and walking app Go Jauntly. 

Earlier this year, the public was invited to download the app, follow one of eight different walking routes, and answer a short in-app survey about how they felt before and afterwards. The project is interrogating how different types of treescapes – another term for a landscape featuring trees – affect our wellbeing. 

“The idea is that each walk has got different levels of young trees, old trees, fields without trees, hedgerows,” explains Miles Richardson, a professor at the University of Derby. Key to the design of the study was making the walks easy to reach and complete. “We put them in places where we know people will be walking anyway,” says Gilbert. “Obviously we want as many people as possible to be doing these walks. We want a range of different people and levels of comfort in nature so that we can get that full spectrum [of data]”.

woodland wellbeing

Earlier this year, the public was invited to download the Go Jauntly app and follow one of eight different walking routes. Image: Zen Chung

The walks were all around three miles long (manageable in just under an hour at average walking pace) and could be navigated via pictures and descriptions on the Go Jauntly app. “You didn’t have to be able to read a map. That sometimes scares people,” Gilbert says with a smile. There was even a financial incentive on offer – the first 400 adults to take part were eligible for a £20 gift voucher. 

The results of the study are currently being analysed. “Through getting the data from eight walks then looking at the objective reality of the tree characteristics on each of the walks, we can work out which trees bring more benefits and in what form,” says Richardson. That learning can then be used to help inform tree-planting strategy both in the National Forest itself and nationwide. As well as contributing to the academic discourse on planting strategy, Richardson’s team will be creating software that foresters can use to help make decisions about the best species, density and location for new trees on any given patch of land.

“It’s a very practical project,” he explains. “It’s planting the woodland that can improve mental health… You can start to think about the woodlands that are planted to become part of our everyday lives rather than the places that you just visit.”

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This knowledge around benefits of tree-planting for wellbeing won’t be used in isolation, but in combination with a host of other factors, including landscape suitability, biodiversity, and the aims of the landowners (because it’s often on privately-owned land that trees are being planted). “The more evidence that we can get on all those different bits allows us to be able to make balanced decisions between these different priorities,” Gilbert explains. 

“There’s been so much in the media about the importance of being in nature and more people are doing that,” adds Gilbert. “But this is an opportunity to use that to help actually shape how things are going to improve in the future. With all the habitat change that the [government’s tree-planting] targets are aimed at, we need to make sure it’s beneficial for people, too.”

Main image: PeopleImages/iStock

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