“Woodlands are especially restorative environments; the sounds, sights and smells in a wood play a role in reducing stress by providing interest and stimulating the senses… from the subtle shifts in temperature that occur between areas in heavy shade, and in sunny glades, to the scent of pine needles crushed underfoot.”

Trees for Transition

The UK has some of the lowest tree cover in Europe. Just over 13% of the country’s land surface is covered in trees – but around half of these are non-native plantations. Of the natural woodlands, according to the Woodland Trust, just 7% are in “good ecological condition.”

Healthcare sites are uniquely placed when it comes to establishing, managing and engaging with woodlands. Trees planted on or near NHS sites can support the health and recovery of patients, as well as boost the wellbeing of staff. Healthcare sites’ connections with the surrounding communities – through health services, jobs, and links with schools and community groups – mean there are also multiple groups who can be involved in the management of the woodlands. In short, woodlands on healthcare sites can support people, while the people can take care of the woodland.

In urban or suburban settings, hospital-linked woodlands can provide access to green space without the need to travel to rural areas – which may be time consuming, expensive, or require a car. They can also provide vital habitat for wildlife, including birds, foxes, hedgehogs, bats and deer.

While some larger healthcare sites enjoy woodlands within their grounds, planting a forest from scratch is rarely an option. However, there are many hospitals with neighbouring patches of woodland which can be used for green social prescribing, staff walks and breaks, and organising community events and volunteering days. These benefit health and wellbeing through physical activity, socialising, learning new skills and engaging with nature.

NHS Forest sites with woodlands

Argyll and Bute Hospital was founded as a 19th century asylum with on-site woodlands and farms to create a place of sanctuary, recuperation and work. In 2002, the NHS collaborated with regional organisations on fundraising and restoring the Blarbuie Woodland. They created pathways, added signage, developed management plans, and offered training, volunteering and education opportunities. Involving the community in this way ensured that the woods would be seen as a community space and be protected well into the future.

The woodland in the grounds of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, in northwest London, was given a new lease of life in 2021 with the opening of a walkway. The woodchip path winds past blackberry bushes and beneath the shady boughs, onto a previously inaccessible meadow. The walkway is close to the hospital so staff can head there during short lunchbreaks – a welcome break from the clinical environment. Wooden waymarkers remind walkers to engage with the nature around them.

Donors, staff and volunteers on the new woodland walkway at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Donors, staff and volunteers on the new woodland walkway at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Walkers in Blarbuie Woodland
Walkers in Blarbuie Woodland. All rights reserved.

In Preston, Lancashire, Guild Lodge is combining modern technology to tap into the ancient benefits of trees. For service users unable to access its woodland, this mental health care hospital has invested in technology to provide a virtual reality woodland experience.

How do woodlands support human health?

A 2021 study by the UK government was the first of its kind to value the mental health benefits associated with the UK’s woodlands, in terms of reduced costs to the NHS and employers of alleviating mental illness. The report estimated that there could be annual savings of £185 million – or £11 billion in total over the next century.

While this research may be new, the understanding of woodlands’ benefits to our health and wellbeing is ancient. Many older hospitals were built on forested sites as it was understood that these could provide places for sanctuary and recovery, as well as cleaner air. Around the world, people recognise the restorative influence of trees, with forest bathing emerging as a way to counteract workplace burnout in 1980s Japan, for example. The forest school concept was developed in Denmark and Sweden in the 1950s, and today is growing hugely in popularity in the UK, as a form of outdoor childhood education that takes place in natural spaces.

In addition to the direct health benefits of spending time in woodlands, these spaces have many secondary benefits for people and the environment. These include mitigating climate change through carbon capture, providing habitat for wildlife, reducing the urban heat island effect, acting as a buffer for noise from roads, and absorbing pollution.

Nature exposure appears to reduce income-related inequality in health status; it has been seen to provide greater benefits for groups with lower socio-economic status.

– FAO, Forests for human health and well-being, 2020

Although we see them as natural spaces, woodlands – as well as walkways, signage and seating – do require skilled management. The most successful woodland projects are the ones that see this not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity: a way to involve and educate the local community, to provide training and volunteering opportunities, and give residents ownership of these green spaces. ‘Friends of the Woodland’ groups can be set up, the land can be used for forest schools or ecotherapy, and events can be held such as volunteering days, bat walks or berry gathering sessions.

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