The Emerging Role of Ecosystem Services in Preventive Medicine

Urban green spaces offer many ecosystem services, including better mental and physical health. Photo by Goingstuckey, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Urban green spaces offer many ecosystem services, including better mental and physical health. Photo by Goingstuckey, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There’s growing evidence that spending time in forests, gardens, or parks may improve physical and mental health. Many environmental scientists have embraced the concept of ecosystem services as a framework for understanding how nature contributes to human well-being. However, the term is still unfamiliar to some professionals outside the environmental field.

In collaboration with Claire Larson (University of California-San Francisco, and Lincoln Larson  (Clemson University), I recently published an article describing the connections between preventive medicine and ecosystem services from green space. The paper, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, represents one of the first to introduce ecosystem services to this prominent medical audience and highlights how urban green spaces can promote health.

Research from multiple fields suggests that contact with nature can be beneficial to public health, and systematically accounting for nature’s benefits can ensure that they are recognized as an important aspect of preventive health care. However, scholars also note that these benefits can be challenging to describe and evaluate. The concept of ecosystem services can help bridge the gap between environmental scientists and medical professionals by highlighting ecological functions and the outcomes.

Since outdoor spaces encourage active lifestyles and other benefits that may prevent disease, integrating ecosystem services and preventive medicine could be an important strategy for advancing health research, education, and practice. This approach is already being used in some communities. For example, the Park Prescription Program is a partnership between the National Park Service, the Centers for Disease Control, some medical practitioners, and insurance providers. Medical professionals in the Porter Health System of Indiana are using the program by writing prescriptions for outdoor activity on public lands.

Recognizing heat mitigation, social cohesion, and outdoor recreation as ecosystem services can make connections across multiple disciplines such as ecology and social sciences. Thus, the concept of ecosystem services provides a context for connecting the physical environment with health, making it very relevant in the field of preventive medicine.

Viniece Jennings  is a research scientist with the Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit of the Southern Research Station. She is the lead author of “Ecosystem Services and Preventive Medicine: A Natural Connection,” which was recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Read the full text of the article.

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

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