Ecopsychology or Why Trees Matter

By: Hélène St. Jacques

Urban forests work hard on behalf of residents, providing shade, cooling buildings and ambient air, reduce stormwater runoff and erosion and remove some of the pollution.  One of the quality of life measures of a city is the amount of tree coverage.   

Toronto may seem to measure up well in some areas but does not do well in others. Overall, Toronto’s urban forest is about 20% of the total area and the goal is to increase it to 30 or 40% in 50 years.  Interestingly 60% of the trees are on private property and most of the remainder is in the parks.  Toronto has over 1,400 small, medium and large parks that take up 11.62% of the total city surface.  Then there is the rapidly expanding number of community gardens, well over 100 at last count and growing, and the high demand 12 municipal allotment gardens – numbering over 4,500 individual plots.  Not to forget the emerging presence of gardens in school yards, private balcony planting and backyard plots. 

Experts from a number of different fields, health, environment, and urban planning agree that urban forests are essential.  Ecopsychologists are now adding to the chorus of supporters proving that urban forests and nature reduces stress levels. Concrete canyons affect the brain in surprising ways. 

One study in a housing project in the South Side of Chicago compared residents who had a view of grassy courtyards with trees and flowerbeds with those who looked out at parking lots.  Those who could gaze out at a little patch of nature scored higher on basic tests of attention and in handling major life challenges. 

Another University of Michigan study fitted undergraduates with GPS receivers.  One group then walked through an arboretum and another walked around busy downtown streets.  When both groups were given a battery of tests those who walked through nature were in a better mood and scored significantly higher on working memory and attention tests.