This story was originally published by guard and is reproduced here as part of Climate desk cooperation.
How happy do you feel right now? The question is asked by an app on my phone, and I slide the slider to the space between “not much” and “somewhat.” I’m about to start a walk in the forest, which is part of a national research project to investigate how to better design the forests of the future.
Volunteers are being sought to record their feelings before and after eight walks using the free app Go Jauntly, which could reveal which types of trees are most beneficial to our well-being and mental health. I’m feeling exhausted after a week of train delays that saw me drive three and a half hours to the Staffordshire village of Barton-under-Needwood, where the walk starts. My mood is sure to be lifted by a green walk through the National Forest, a vast forest rising through the Midlands.
My guide is Miles Richardson, professor of nature engagement at the University of Darby, who hopes that the data he collects from these Treefest walks will reveal how the age, size and shape of trees and forests have beneficial effects on well-being. “With the government’s ambitious tree planting targets, there will be hundreds of new forests across the country,” Richardson said. “The whole project is about creating design tools so that we can create the best landscape of trees in 50 years.” Is the best way to do it with densely packed stands of trees in neat rows? Is this more beneficial to your well-being than a less linear approach? We don’t know.”
Treefest’s research walks are part of the $16.7 million Future of the UK Treescapes programme, an interdisciplinary mission involving multiple universities exploring how to deliver public benefits from woodland landscapes.
We set off across green fields and soon find ourselves in a regulated plantation planted in the 1990s as part of the National Forest, 200 square miles of woodland stretching from Staffordshire to Leicestershire in areas historically scarred by coal mines.
Numerous scientific studies reveal the physiological and psychological benefits of time spent among trees, but there is still a lack of understanding of how different types of treescapes affect us. Research shows that greater landscape biodiversity brings more mental and physical benefits to people, and Richardson suspects that well-being will be enhanced more by wildlife-rich ancient forests than by monoculture forest plantations.
It’s a momentary relief to be away from the traffic – the trees drown out the noise of the nearby A38 – but the first rows of young ash trees dying of desiccation disease do not fill me with joy. Another problem is that I have to check the route in the Go Jauntly app. This has clear pictures along with helpful directions, but I’m on my phone enough and don’t like to use it when I’m trying to relax in nature.
However, Richardson is keen to emphasize that technology is not a barrier to the appreciation of nature, but can deepen it or provide access for nature-averse communities. “We are a tech monkey and we have to embrace it. It’s the way the tool is used that matters,” he said.
While I would once use a map, the app guides us, and Richardson believes that in the near future, “AI and digital assistance will do the work of connecting people with nature.” I imagine being led through a forest by a virtual David Attenborough. “Maybe Alexa will grow legs,” Richardson said. “You can have a digitally created face that takes you into the natural world, comforts you and tells you where to go.”
The new plantation gives way to a patch of old oaks with an undergrowth of hazel and gorse that is more chaotic and yet somehow more peaceful. We then emerge into a rolling landscape of pastures, large park trees, with the village church of Dunstall on the horizon.
“We’re not in a forest now, we’re in a treescape,” Richardson said. “How close do trees have to be to start making a difference to us? How dense should they be?” He hopes to collect enough data from the walks to also study how spaces with more biodiversity can contribute to well-being – through more birdsong, for example. The lack of jarring noise on this walk definitely helps me feel calmer and happier, and Richardson said he could record the noise on the eight research walks to investigate this variable as well.
The program also seeks to design climate-resilient forests. “What trees can you plant when we have 40C summers with 20mm of rain every month? “It’s also nice to think about planting forests that are designed to have social prescriptions or advisory services in the trees,” Richardson said. “You can’t go for more than a five-minute walk in the woods here – you can’t go for a cool walk in a summer heatwave. In terms of future landscapes, a three-mile walk in a forest near where people live seems pretty important.
Dozens of peer-reviewed studies have identified the myriad benefits of wooded landscapes for everything from improved cardiovascular and immune system health to reduced depression with forest immersion along with lower levels of anxiety, anger, confusion and fatigue.
But it seems that the type of forest may also be important: Interestingly, several studies have shown that more biodiversity has a greater boost to people’s mental health, while recording brain activity in response to forest density found a more relaxed state and reduced stress and fatigue in forests with lower tree densities—from 30 percent to 50 percent—suggesting that densely packed conifer stands are not as restorative.
My pleasure peaks when we enter a strip of broad-leaved forest with a wide grass avenue that is teeming with life – dragonflies, meadow ants and spotted wood butterflies busy themselves while a green woodpecker cackles in the distance. I find it joyous to witness an abundance of other animals living freely, and seeing other life up close puts my own concerns into perspective – as well as considering the longevity of these trees.
Of course, there is constant predation, disease, pain and chronic anxiety in the non-human world as well. And what about people who are afraid of the woods or feel uncomfortable in the countryside? Richardson says that if we ensure that there is a wide variety of wooded landscapes close to homes, people of all temperaments and backgrounds will be able to discover the benefits of nature in their own way. “We are many and varied people and we just have to be sensitive to where people and communities are and be sensitive to that in the design of new treescapes,” he said.
At the end of the walk, I answer a series of questions about the trees and birds I encountered and how I feel. I’ve definitely reached the happier side of “somewhat” happy. But I notice the real benefits of our tree walk when I get home after another long drive: I’m glowing from hours outside, relaxed and energized.
Richardson added: “We need to find ways for everyone to have a closer connection with nature, because it’s good for well-being and it’s good for a sustainable future. This route will be different for different communities. The excitement is finding out what those solutions are and getting people involved in designing, developing and managing them.”