Jim Skiera is the executive director at the International Society of Arboriculture, an executive board member of i-Tree and founding chair of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition. Photo by Jim Skiera

“Urban forests” have tremendous potential to improve public health. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their many benefits include providing environmental services such as clean air and water, cooling cities and save energy, improving air quality, creating walkable communities and strengthening quality of place and local economies.

International Society of Arboriculture Executive Director Jim Skiera says the relationship between the public health and urban forestry community is “in its infancy,” but that opportunities abound to collaborate for greener communities and a resulting healthier America. Public Health Newswire talked to Skiera, also an executive board member of i-Tree and founding chair of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition, to talk about this potential.

APHA has long promoted for sound public health policy in our design of cities. According to APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, “public health and urban planning have had a long and very productive relationship.” Can the same be said for public health and urban forests?

In truth, the relationship between the public health community and the urban forestry community is in its infancy, but it is growing and getting stronger. This is partially because there is now increased awareness of urban ecosystems – a term that wasn’t even used a few decades ago – and the integral role urban and community forests play in improving human health in all communities, from rural towns to megacities. We have made a connection with the urban planning community, and all sides recognize the direct connection between the human health benefits that urban and community forests provide. Specifically, research findings on the social and health benefits of urban forests are capturing the attention of public health officials on a global scale.

SUFC helped lead the “Trees Are the Key” campaign to tackle nationwide public health challenges — including obesity, poor nutrition and mental health. How does this work?

Trees really are the key to alleviating many public health concerns, and there are plenty of reasons why our campaign and other excellent urban and community forestry education campaigns are trying to bring community access to green spaces. Inactive lifestyles and resulting obesity is causing an epidemic of poor health in adults and children. Recent research indicates that quality outdoor environments affect activity, attitudes and behaviors. According to one NIH study, people who use parks and open spaces are three times more likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity than nonusers.

Encounters with nearby nature provide an antidote to stress and support general wellness, offering restorative experiences that ease the mind and heal the body. Parks and green spaces encourage social interaction and de-stressing through exercise or conversation, and provide calming settings. Both visual and physical access to green space helps to restore the mind’s ability to focus.

One of SUFC’s overarching goals is to network with organizations to promote “healthier, vibrant cities.” How can APHA and other public health champions help give our support?

The best way for APHA to assist is to get involved and get engaged. Learn the urban forest drumbeat and play it wherever they can. Become familiar with the Vibrant Cities report and its recommendations, and advocate on their behalf. Building connections to the public health benefits that urban forests provide will help policy makers incorporate the urban forest into planning decisions, for the benefit of all. You can find out how urban and community forests impact human health and well-being at Trees Are The Key and Green Cities: Good Health.