A Different Twist on City Green Spaces and Health

Connecting ecosystem services with individual and social wellbeing

by Viniece Jennings, SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit
Spending time in nature – whether a forest or a public park – improves health and wellbeing. Photo by Gryffindor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Spending time in nature – whether a forest or a public park – improves health and wellbeing. Photo by Gryffindor, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although the benefits of urban forests, gardens, parks, and other green spaces have been documented, the nuances of this relationship continue to be explored. For example, the role of green spaces in the social aspects of public health are often overlooked.

My colleagues Lincoln Larson  (Clemson University), Jessica Yun (Georgetown University) and I recently explored the relationship between green spaces and the social factors that influence health. Our study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, and creatively connects ecosystem services such as aesthetic surroundings and outdoor recreation, with social determinants of health.

Social determinants of health include factors such as neighborhood and the built environment, economic stability, and social context. These categories are multifaceted: for instance, neighborhood and the built environment involves access to healthy food, crime, environmental conditions, and violence.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlines a variety of social determinants of health in its Healthy People 2020 framework. Interaction between green space and social determinants can potentially enhance social cohesion, community revitalization, academic performance, and human wellbeing.

As we articulate the relationship between green spaces and wellbeing, we also extend the discussion to include socioeconomic variables such as race, ethnicity, and levels of income. Such observations can have implications for environmental justice. Parks, for example, provide a unique form of social gathering space in congested cities. The social interactions and collaboration that parks facilitate could have lasting impacts on community wellbeing.

In addition to this paper, Larson, Scott Cloutier (Arizona State University) and I recently published another article in PLoS ONE that examines the relationship between public parks and wellbeing in 44 U.S. cities. The most important predictor of wellness was the quantity of urban green space, which was measured by the percentage of city area covered with public parks.

The strength of this relationship appeared to be driven by parks’ contributions to physical and community wellbeing. Even though park quality, which was measured by the per capita spending on parks, contributed to wellbeing, the relationship with health was not as strong as expected. Similar findings were observed for park access, which pertained to the percent population within a half mile of parks. Overall, the strong relationship between park coverage and health suggest that expansive park networks are linked to multiple aspects of health and wellbeing in cities and positively impact urban quality of life.

These two articles represent our latest effort to connect benefits from green space to larger frameworks in public health and wellbeing. “We have a pretty good grasp on the physical health benefits associated with green space. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Lincoln Larson. “We are just beginning to understand how interactions with nature can impact other aspects of human development at both the individual and community level.”

By connecting the dots between the frameworks of ecosystem services and public health, we are better positioned to cross disciplinary boundaries in a way to effectively approach issues in urban areas.

Viniece Jennings  is a research scientist with the Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit of the Southern Research Station.

Read the full text of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health article.

Read the full text of the PLoS ONE article.

For more information, email Viniece Jennings at vjennings02@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Ethics & Values, Integrating Human & Natural Systems, Recreation, Urban Forests

Science Partners Launch “Ecosystem Benefits and Risks” Website

Research and website support natural resource management across the Appalachians

Appalachian communities often place value on the unique sense of place that comes from living in largely forested areas, but rapid urbanization, energy development, and climate change can put these values at risk. Photo by Ralph Preston.

Appalachian communities often place value on the unique sense of place that comes from living in largely forested areas, but rapid urbanization, energy development, and climate change can put these values at risk. Photo by Ralph Preston.

The Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and the U.S. Forest Service are releasing products from the first phase of an ongoing study assessing benefits of and risks to the region’s “ecosystem services” — natural assets valued by people, such as clean drinking water, outdoor recreation, forest products, and biological conservation.

A wealth of data, maps, and other knowledge on ecosystem services and risks to their sustainability are now available on the “Ecosystem Benefits and Risks” website within the Appalachian LCC Web Portal. The new website provides regional resources and tools for planners, managers, and the interested publics across the Appalachians.

Lars Pomara, research ecologist with the Forest Service Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, said the goal of the research is to “link the values that society places on these benefits from nature with threats to their current and future sustainability to inform future resource management decisions and enhance conservation.”

The first phase of the research provides a synthesis of existing knowledge, where users can:

  • Explore the many natural benefits – such as drinking water and recreation – provided by the Appalachian region’s diverse ecosystems;
  • Understand how these natural benefits may be placed at risk by rapid societal and environmental change; and
  • Access online data resources, maps, decision support tools, assessments and scientific literature to incorporate ecosystem benefits and risks information into planning and management decisions.

Building upon this research, the LCC and Forest Service are developing new assessments to better understand how Appalachian ecosystem services have changed – and are likely to change – as a result of urbanization, energy development and other major drivers of environmental change. Future products will include a toolkit to assist managers and partners in strengthening the resilience of landscapes and their capacity to provide important natural benefits, while serving as a model for the LCC Network in delivering ecosystem services science more broadly.

Access the “Ecosystem Benefits and Risks” website.

For more information, email Lars Pomara at lazarusypomara@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Threats

FIA Data Informs the Fight Against Insect Invasion

by Sarah Farmer, SRS Science Communications
FIA data is used to measure the risk of future invasions. For example, the oak splendor beetle is a relative of the emerald ash borer, and could decimate oaks in the U.S. Photo by Siga, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

FIA data are used to measure the risk of future invasions. For example, the oak splendor beetle, a relative of the emerald ash borer now in Europe, could decimate oaks in the U.S. FIA data are used to develop risk maps for the pest before it arrives. Photo by Siga, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

More than 50,000 non-native plants, insects, and animals have been introduced to the U.S. Scientists estimate that 4,500 of them are arthropods. “Insect invasions are enabled by humans’ ever-expanding trade and travel networks,” says U.S. Forest Service scientist James Vogt. “Across the globe, invasive species are crossing borders at alarming rates.”

In some states such as Florida, an average of 15 newly introduced species become established each year. Not all non-native species are destructive. “Some invasive insects either have or certainly will alter the landscapes where their hosts occur,” says Vogt.

Some of the most destructive introduced insects include the hemlock woolly adelgid, which attacks eastern hemlock and Carolina hemlock; the balsam woolly adelgid, which has destroyed most of the mature fir trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the redbay ambrosia beetle, which threatens redbay and sassafras trees across the Southeast; and the emerald ash borer, which has killed tens of millions of ash trees in the U.S.

Vogt is deputy program manager of the Forest Service Southern Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA), which nationwide represents the longest-running and most comprehensive survey of forested land in the U.S. Through FIA, the Forest Service collects information on the status, trends, and resource conditions for all forest lands in the country. Historically, FIA focused on timber resources, and although this is still a priority, FIA now collects information on many forest attributes, including invasive plant species, lichens, soil properties, and carbon storage. Vogt and his colleague Frank Koch, a research ecologist at the SRS Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, recently published an article in American Entomologist outlining the role of FIA data in invasive insect research.

FIA data are extremely useful in many aspects of preventing, detecting, and managing invasive insects, as well as forest restoration after invasions. Most of these applications are informed by FIA data on plant distribution and abundance. Because forest pests typically require a certain plant host, the presence and abundance of that host can be used to develop risk maps, which show regions most vulnerable to invasion.

Risk maps can be helpful before an invasion actually occurs. For example, the oak splendor beetle is native to Europe and has not been detected in the U.S.; however, it is related to the emerald ash borer, and could potentially decimate oaks. The risk map developed for the oak splendor beetle shows that parts of the Southern Appalachians would be highly susceptible while the Midwest is at little to no risk.

New pests and pathogens continue to be introduced into the U.S., most often through live plant imports and wood packing material. A new review study co-authored by SRS research forester Thomas Holmes suggests that stronger measures to prevent new infestations may be necessary. The review was published in the journal Ecological Applications, and lists several options for strengthening the defenses against pest arrival and establishment including measures taken in exporting countries, measures ensuring that pests are not hidden in plant shipments or packing material, increasing inspection at ports of entry, and enhancing quarantine, surveillance, and eradication programs.

Minimizing new invasions is critical, but an overwhelming number of non-native pests are already established in the U.S. For these pests, FIA data can help guide management responses in infested areas. “Having data on host distribution greatly increases our understanding of the potential and realized impacts of invasive species,” says Vogt. “FIA data have tremendous value for actions involving prioritization of treatment areas, rapid response to new infestations, and monitoring success over the long-term.”

Read the full text of The Evolving Role of Forest Inventory and Analysis Data in Invasive Insect Research.

Read the full text of Nonnative Forest Insects and Pathogens in the United States: Impacts and Policy Options.

For more information, email James Vogt at jtvogt@fs.fed.us.

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

Posted in Forest Inventory & Analysis, Insects and Diseases, Threats
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