The evidence that being in green, whether or not it’s a walk in the park, gardening or seeing nature out the window, is good for us. So far, no one has calculated how much green – as in dollars –greenery saves on health care costs.
A new University of Illinois led research project intends to do just that: explore how urban forestry affects health care spending, and then build a free online modeling tool city arborists can use to estimate their communities’ potential rate of return on their investments in parks and other natural elements.
“While a number of studies suggest that exposure to nature improves people’s health and well-being, nobody has ever calculated a return on cities’ investments in urban forestry. Our study will be the first to look at tree plantings and parks, and how much people spent on health care before and after those greening effects,” said Matthew Browning, who also is the health and nature lead researcher for the Parks and Environmental Behavior Research Group at the University of Illinois.
The study will examine how urban green space is related to health expenditures among more than 4 million members of Kaiser Permanente Northern California, which maintains health utilization and cost data in its comprehensive electronic medical records.
The member data maintained by Kaiser Permanente will enable the researchers to examine whether health care expenditures decline after communities invest in urban forestry and how these expenditures change when people move to greener or less green neighborhoods, according to the project description.
Many of the studies on the health impact of urban forestry were conducted in regions with cold, inhospitable climates, and little of that research focused on underserved communities, according to the researchers on the current project.
The study’s geographic area encompasses 80,000 square miles in northern California and “is representative of more climates than almost any other area that could be studied,” according to the project description. The population in the area being studied is equally diverse: About half of the 7 million inhabitants are black, Latino or from other ethnic groups.
“And income varies all over the map,” Ming Kuo, also from the University of Illinois, said. “One of the great opportunities that the Kaiser Permanente data give us is the chance to examine the impacts of residential greenness on low-, medium- and high-income neighborhoods.”
The region will be mapped in 3-D and its urban forestry categorized by type and by trait to identify which characteristics and settings are associated with the greatest health care savings. Friends of the Urban Forest and California ReLeaf, will provide the cost data for the region’s urban forestry so the researchers can estimate the costs of designing, planting and maintaining trees in other residential surroundings.
The findings will be used to generate a free open-source modeling tool using the InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Tradeoffs) platform, developed by the Natural Capital Project. Translating the findings into a free online modeling tool will make the research accessible to a broader audience of urban planners, designers and city leaders.—from Urban forestry project ties residential nature to health care spending a University of Illinois press release.
NewTerrain October 17, 2016.