There are endless ways to experience and benefit from being in our Seattle parks.
Running, walking, and playing in a community green space provides social and health benefits. Relaxing experiences, like sitting on a bench and watching the clouds roll by, lowers stress and refreshes our cognitive abilities. The experiences, labor, and emotions of stewardship- the behind the scenes access- perhaps add another layer on top of the known health benefits from time spent in nature.
As a volunteer Forest Steward, you witness change and growth differently from the average visitor. You remember what your restoration site looked like covered in ivy, and celebrate the trees that survived the dry summer. You can take pride in the labor and knowledge you’ve applied to the land. For Stewards, time spent in Seattle green spaces occurs more often than the average visitor, and for longer periods of time. Recurring stewardship is a VIP level of personal responsibility, time, and emotional investment and links personal experiences with the wider community.
Here is a highlight of experiences and benefits from engaging behind the scenes in our urban forest:
Viewing, touching, and simply ‘being in nature’ heals our bodies.
An abundance of research over the past forty years provides evidence that spending time in urban green spaces, even if you are resting, can improve blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormone indicators (cortisol), and white-blood cell count.
Memory, mood, self-esteem, creativity and focused attention improves even after a short time outside.
When we garden (and by extension, landscape restoration) our cognitive abilities improve, our senses are highly engaged, aesthetic experiences are heightened, and improved neural connections contribute to socio-emotional intelligence.
Have you ever been startled by the impressive size or shape of a tree? “People who experience awe more frequently have lower levels of pro-inflammatory proteins in their body.” Short-term inflammation helps your body fight invading germs, but persistent inflammation has negative effects on health and immunity.
Participating in urban greening programs contributes to community empowerment and social cohesion.
Stewardship provides an ongoing sense-of-place, shared memories, and meaning. The trees we plant outlive the people and practices that fostered them, and connect people and ideas across generations.
The more trees and vegetation around us, the more likely we’ll use common spaces and exhibit stronger neighborhood social ties. These improvements are common across most ages, ethnicities, locations and gender.
Stewardship activities help to lessen feelings of isolation and disempowerment that can lead to depression and anxiety. It also creates an avenue for social response to failures in large scale government or economic services.
Social movement research indicates urban green areas maintained by a diverse set of interest and user groups have higher chances of being protected due to a more robust combination of knowledge, skills and capacity.
Not everyone finds it easy to visit a green space or volunteer.
In a 2009 UK study, residents in lower socioeconomic (SES) areas perceived lower levels of access to parks, compared to residents from higher SES areas, even with comparable levels of park infrastructure. Concerns about safety and lack of pleasant walking options to parks were important variables in all areas. Free time to visit parks was less likely in lower SES areas.
People perceive more access to parks if there are people from similar cultural backgrounds using them. Social, on-site park events, may enhance the perception of shared culture within a park setting.
A 2013 CDC report encouraged communities to take additional steps to improve the health and well-being of older adults. At the community level, the report calls for improvements in mobility in outdoor spaces, programs that encourage brain health, and opportunities to decrease mental distress among elders.
Our Seattle greenspaces provide opportunities for all to enjoy. Visit more often, engage your senses and bodies, and experience the awe of persistent life around us. Stewardship is one sure way to gain heightened access to all these benefits and more.
Steward Education Collaborator, Washington Native Plant Society/GSP
Elizabeth supports the Green Seattle Partnership through her consulting firm Our Future Environment and as a St. Mark’s Greenbelt Forest Steward. She provides services to integrate the benefits of natural, restorative, digital, and open spaces in urban environments.