In 1984, a researcher named Roger Ulrich noticed a curious pattern among patients who were recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban hospital in Pennsylvania. Those who had been given rooms overlooking a small stand of deciduous trees were being discharged almost a day sooner, on average, than those in otherwise identical rooms whose windows faced a wall. The results seemed at once obvious—of course a leafy tableau is more therapeutic than a drab brick wall—and puzzling. Whatever curative property the trees possessed, how were they casting it through a pane of glass?
That is the riddle that underlies a new study in the journal Scientific Reports by a team of researchers in the United States, Canada, and Australia, led by the University of Chicago psychology professor Marc Berman. The study compares two large data sets from the city of Toronto, both gathered on a block-by-block level; the first measures the distribution of green space, as determined from satellite imagery and a comprehensive list of all five hundred and thirty thousand trees planted on public land, and the second measures health, as assessed by a detailed survey of ninety-four thousand respondents. After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. “To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger,” Berman told me.
Are such numbers fanciful? The emerald ash borer, which has killed a hundred million trees across North America in recent years, offers a grim natural experiment. A county-by-county analysis of health records by the U.S. Forest Service, between 1990 and 2007, found that deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses rose in places where trees succumbed to the pest, contributing to more than twenty thousand additional deaths during the study period. The Toronto data shows a similar link between tree cover and cardio-metabolic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. For the people suffering from these conditions, an extra eleven trees per block corresponds to an income boost of twenty thousand dollars, or being almost one and a half years younger.
What is most interesting about this data, though, is one of its subtler details. The health benefits stem almost entirely from trees planted along streets and in front yards, where many people walk past them; trees in back yards and parks don’t seem to matter as much in the analysis. It could be that roadside trees have a bigger impact on air quality along sidewalks, or that leafy avenues encourage people to walk more. But Berman is also interested in a possibility that harks back to Ulrich’s hospital-window finding: perhaps it is enough simply to look at a tree.