environment

Urban trees a matter of health

A new study out of the UK, which incorporates research from Auckland, highlights the importance of being able to see trees from your window - particularly in economically deprived areas. Campaigners will be using it to bolster their argument for strengthening tree protection measures in New Zealand. 

The paper concluded trees in private gardens were more important than those on public land when it came to people having an everyday experience of nature, and urban trees in deprived, high density housing areas were disproportionately more important for providing "indirect nature experiences". Lead author Daniel Cox, from the University of Exeter in Cornwall, attributed work by University of Auckland ecologist Dr Margaret Stanley in his study. Dr Stanley says the study shows more strategic planting on existing land is needed ... along with better protection for trees on private land. 

It's the latter that Tree Council secretary Dr Mels Barton has been battling for, 10 years after such protections were removed in the interest of upholding the rights of private property owners. She says this paper shows that significant trees are not private, but are a public asset. "The link between people living at one property and valuing something else across the road comes out as so, so, important - and it's not been demonstrated before," she says. "We will definitely be waving [the report] around; there is not enough research into the benefits of urban trees."

The report is based on an extended urban area in southern England, but Barton says it most definitely has parallels in the New Zealand landscape. The paper says urbanisation is emerging as one of the most important human health issues of the 21st century, with cities becoming epicentres for chronic and non-communicable physical and mental health conditions. "Nature in cities has the potential to mitigate many of these health issues, with demonstrable links between exposure to nature and health and well-being benefits. 

"With the rise in urban living, most people now spend much of their day indoors, therefore the green viewscape from home or from work often constitutes by far their most common nature experience. Having a room with a view of nature does not necessarily mean that people are continuously experiencing that view. Instead, people spend a significant amount of time with their attention directed towards specific tasks, and the presence of a window with a natural scene allows micro-restorative experiences, with scenes that are more fascinating being likely to be more restorative. There is robust evidence to suggest that indirect nature experiences provide a broad range of health and wellbeing benefits, including increased psychological wellbeing, improved cognitive function and concentration, reduced healing times and reduced stress at work," it says.  

"Trees that fall within the viewscape of more buildings are likely to be disproportionately more important for providing health benefits associated with indirect nature experiences."

Tall trees in private gardens were likely to be most people's connection with nature, but "largely due to conflict with urban intensification these trees may also be at the greatest risk of removal". 

Barton says the study has lent weight to the argument that yes, the tree might be within your boundary, but also belongs to others in your community. "Your tree is not just your tree," she says. "It really belongs to those people who can see it. It really affects people's well-being and it's important to them. So it shouldn't be your right to make the decision to remove it." 

It's that aspect of "it's my tree and I'll do what I like with it" that Barton is trying to change under government legislation - but it's been in the pipeline for the past two years and is not happening soon enough for her. "Trees are being removed every day. We want that to stop before it's too late."

Barton has personal experience with the frustration of her view being butchered. She has watched "standing on my deck screaming at him to stop" as a neighbour across her Titirangi valley hacked at two massive macrocarpa trees that she can see from her bedroom. "The moon comes up between those two trees for me so it's really upsetting me every time I look at it."

She says the same scenario is happening every day, all over Auckland, to thousands of unprotected trees. "I've just had somebody ring me from Northcote who's watched a line of decades-old pohutukawa along a driveway being removed. There's nothing they can do about it."  There are only 6000 protected trees in Auckland, "and people are removing them for spurious reasons, like they drop leaves. It's selfish, frankly. They might only live in that house with trees on their property for five years and yet they have the right to destroy a tree that's been there for hundreds of years and provides benefits for thousands of people." 

The UK study also has implications for inner city street-scapes. Barton says if you work all day at a boring office job, a view of a tree and birds is going to help you get through the day. "That's borne out by this paper and I don't think it's recognised. Maybe we've lost touch with that." Barton points out mental health institutions and hospitals used to be surrounded with planted trees because it was recognised that seeing nature aided your recovery. "The layout of cities and where we put specimen trees is really important." 

Similarly new intensive housing blocks which look into a green space should have large trees planted in the centre of that space, not on the edge where they can't be seen by all. 

"Auckland in particular has developed ad-hoc with all these pocket parks as development contributions that are too small to put a house on ... they're really of almost no benefit." Barton says trees should rather be planted where they can be seen. 

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