Can’t hug a person? Hug a tree!

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Neil hugging old-growth pine, Lake Kukagami

During this COVID time here in Ontario most publicly-owned natural areas, as well as those owned or managed by pseudo-public agencies like conservation authorities, are closed—some (as seen in the GTA) even signed “no trespassing” to make the point. In contrast, elsewhere a number of countries, provinces, and jurisdictions are keeping some natural spaces open in recognition of the beneficial effects of nature.

In the U.K., while high-touch spaces like playgrounds are of closed, parks have been deemed essential and stay open. In Canada, B.C. kept open some day-use facilities and services, with modified visitor protocols, at select provincial parks.

“Nature provides the perfect environment to promote health and well-being,” said George Heyman, B.C. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. “We are following the advice of the provincial health officer to help people get outside, while ensuring they are following the PHO’s direction and guidance to stay healthy.”

Interestingly, B.C. has maintained the flattest COVID curve of Canada’s populous provinces. But my favourite example of a proactive approach to keeping open spaces open during the pandemic is in Iceland where park rangers for the Hallormsstaður National Forest are going so far as to clear roads and paths up to trees as they encourage people to battle social isolation. (See Forbes article Icelandic Forest Service Recommends Hugging Trees Since You Can’t Hug People.)

I do appreciate the risks of congregating and I can see why, when photos get posted online showing people in close proximity at parks and natural spaces, the easiest and most immediate solution is to close them. But are the parks the problem? Or is the problem a lack of common sense, a lack of factual information, and perhaps lack of defined (and enforced?) safe usage protocols?

We seem to have fallen into line (literally) waiting outside supermarkets and the LCBO, perhaps we can figure it out at parks too. Especially for people in urban and suburban areas, the lack of access to woodlands and other natural areas may end up having mental health costs which potentially even outweigh the risks of being in those spaces. Some illustrations, pre-COVID, from around the world:

  • In Scotland, government had seen the value of green spaces for mental health, especially for those in lower socio-economic status cohorts, and mandated wide scale tree planting to increase the proportion of forested Scotland from 17 to 25 percent.
  • Sweden integrates horticultural therapy for people on sick leave for work-related stress.
  • Finland officially recommends a minimum of 5 hours/month in nature.
  • In Japan, a Chiba University study found that forest walks, compared to urban walks, resulted in a 12% decrease in cortisol (the “stress” hormone) levels, 7% decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (our fight/flight/freeze response), and a 1.4% decrease in blood pressure.
  • A Dutch study of 10,000+ households found that people of similar incomes living near more vegetation experienced less loneliness.
  • And in Toronto, a study showed the higher a neighbourhood’s tree density, the lower incidence of heart and metabolic disease.

These factoids are all referenced in Florence Williams’ 2017 book The Nature Fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative. And there are many other studies demonstrating the physiological benefits to spending time in woodlands, particularly when it comes to phytoncides, the aerosols put out by trees–especially conifers. I would call nature essential, and I am grateful it is close by.

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