With Plants in Mind: Social Benefits of Civic Nature

By Kathleen L. Wolf
Seattle, WA (January 1, 2008)- More than 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in cities, and as urban greening continues, nature can be used to provide a range of amenities for people who live, work, and learn in urban communities. Many of us know that the urban forest improve air quality and reduce urban heat island effects, but urban plants and nature also are linked with all sorts of positive affects such as greater job productivity, improved school performance, stronger social ties within communities, and less crime.

Psychologists have studied the restorative capacities of natural settings, and the aspects of nature that support what we do. Desk workers who have a view of nature report greater job productivity and satisfaction, and reduced absenteeism. Additionally, when children play in places with trees and vegetation, their development of skills and cognitive abilities improve, and they show fewer symptoms of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Living in a green environment can improve school performance, seen in inner-city girls with more natural views at home, who show greater concentration and self-discipline at school.
Shared green spaces, particularly those having trees, help strengthen social ties among neighbors. A series of studies of inner-city neighborhoods shows green spaces with trees contribute to healthier, more supportive patterns of interrelations among residents, including greater sharing of resources. People may also intentionally come together to green up their community through a community garden project or a “NeighborWoods” program. These collective actions may become the spark that enables a community to develop self-organizing skills and resources. After completing a community greening project, organized citizens may turn their attention to other needs, such as school improvements or downtown redevelopment. Project participants build social capital, and adaptive learning within a community helps people focus their common will on a range of local needs.
In addition to leading to stronger social ties among neighbors- which then contributes to safer neighborhoods-, trees themselves have a direct effect on lowered crime rates. In one study of the plant-to-safety link, residents of greener buildings reported fewer incidences of vandalism, graffiti, and litter than counterparts in more barren buildings. The trend extends to more violent crime. When one study compared police reports of crime and extent of tree and grass cover, the greener a building’s surroundings, the fewer total crimes were reported.
In addition to improved neighborhoods in terms of lowered crime rates and better organization, a well-managed urban forest also contributes to community economics. Economic assessments show that real estate values are enhanced by landscape and vegetation. Trees and nature generate economic benefits for commercial and retail enterprises as well. In one study, rental rates were 7 percent higher for commercial office properties having a quality landscape. Drivers viewing commercial settings (such as auto sales and motels) from a high-speed road expressed more positive impressions for a community with roadside landscape that included trees, claiming willingness to pay from 7 to 20 percent more for goods and services there. The greener community was characterized as being a more appealing place for shoppers, including positive merchant interactions and product quality.
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With Plants in Mind: Social Benefits of Civic Nature