Forests and Human Health June-20-2012

Features and commentary

Joint project on the stress-reducing qualities of urban green areas

Yuko Tsunetsugu, Ph D.
Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, Japan

Stress control has become a significant problem in urbanized countries, with an increasing number of studies proving that chronic stress severely affects human physical and mental health. This problem consequently levies financial burdens on societies; according to OECD reports in 2008 and 2011, mental health problems are widespread in OECD countries and incur costs accounting for 3-4% of the gross domestic product in the European Union. There is a strong need to develop a means of coping with everyday stress.

The Finland-Japan joint project on “The stress reducing qualities of urban green areas”, supported by the Academy of Finland and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for a 2-year term (2011-2012), was launched against this background. The project aims to develop a new research framework to address the stress-reducing effects of green spaces by integrating physiological and psychological approaches and accumulating knowledge of the qualities of green areas that elicit relaxing and stress-reducing outcomes in urban environments. Researchers from the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, Japan and the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla), as well as other 4 research organizations are actively collaborating to achieve these goals.

I stayed at Metla for 5 months from the end of May to mid-October 2011, and was involved in planning and implementing a preliminary experiment in Finland under the project. It was my first time to be outside Japan for more than a few weeks, and was a great opportunity to learn how similar and yet how different the countries are.

Finland and Japan have roughly the same land area and the same percentage of forest coverage (70%), ranked high among so-called developed countries. Moreover, both countries have significant public demand for green spaces that provide healthy environments for people. However, people’s attitudes or feelings toward forests and nature differ considerably. I was constantly impressed to see many Finns enjoying staying in a forest/green space beside a lake on holidays, and even after work in summertime. (The idea of having a picnic after work had never occurred to me.) It was also really nice to hear people’s childhood stories, where they spent time in a nearby forest talking to trees and smelling the moss. In Japan, the “mental distance” from forests is far greater in my view and the actual accessibility of forests is generally relatively low. Investigating how these cultural differences impact on physiological and psychological responses to green spaces is one of the key aspects of the project.

Some of the project outcomes will be presented at an IUFRO conference in Tokyo in May 2012. I appreciate the ForHealth task force for prompting us to launch this project and hope more such projects will arise through its activity.

Dr. Yuko (in 3rd from left) with the members of Finnish-Japanese joint-project in Vantaa, Finland

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