Existing evidence strongly supports a wide range of health benefits associated with forests. These include brain development in children, mental health and wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing and cardiometabolic health in adults of all ages.
Forests, trees and green spaces are also crucial in enhancing social interactions and social health and have positive effects on cognitive ageing and longevity.
The global scientific evidence of the multiple types of benefits that forests, trees and green spaces have on human health has now been comprehensively assessed by an international and interdisciplinary team of scientists.
The outcome is presented in a major peer-reviewed report titled “Forests and Trees for Human Health: Pathways, Impacts, Challenges and Response Options” by the Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) Programme of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO).
The report highlights the important contribution of forests and trees to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its goals, particularly Goal 3 (SDG 3), which aims to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.”
Contemporary human health challenges differ across the globe. In low- and middle-income countries, health is mainly related to interactions with forests through food, medicinal plants, and clean water as well as infectious diseases.
In high-income countries, there is a higher dominance of non-communicable diseases such as heart diseases and diabetes, but also mental disorders. The positive impacts of exposure to forests and green spaces on mental, physical and social health are increasingly considered in urban areas.
There is mounting evidence that nature contact buffers against the onset of mental health disorders and can reduce related symptoms. A study in the UK found an association between the amount of greenness within 500 m buffers of residences and decreased risk for major depressive disorders, especially for people of lower socio-economic status and highly urbanized areas.
While forests, trees and green spaces affect human health at all stages, from the prenatal stage to the elderly, the significant impacts on children deserve particular attention, mainly because of repercussions in later life. For example, a longitudinal British analysis found that children whose homes are in more vegetated places or in close proximity to green spaces have better lung function up to 24 years of age.
In rural areas forests may also be visited and used for recreation and tourism, providing income to rural enterprises both in low- and high-income countries while bringing direct wellbeing outcomes to urban visitors. In northern Europe, outdoor recreation surveys show that 76% to 91% of the adult population visit forests – both urban and rural – each year.
However, global crises such as climate change, land-use change, and biodiversity loss endanger the important role that forests and trees play for human health, as they are among the drivers behind wildland fires, heavy storms and forest pests, for example.
“The report underpins a One Health perspective, which recognizes that the health of humans, animals, plants, and the wider environment are closely linked and interdependent. It suggests that decision-makers in forest, health and related domains should also adopt more integrative perspectives for addressing forest-human health relations. By linking forest and human health policies and strategies, new and innovative solutions for health and forest challenges can be identified“, says Expert Panel Chair Cecil Konijnendijk, University of British Columbia, Canada.