Forest environments for health
Several countries in eastern Asia are well ahead of Scandinavia when it comes to setting aside forests to improve human health. Japan has over sixty certified therapeutic forest areas and a thousand so-called recreational forests spread throughout the country. Up to now, Korea has established 32 therapeutic forests attracting up to 1,8 million visits per year According to the Koreans, the forests are designed for health, well-being and happiness, and have a healing function (Park et al 2021).
When Swedish researchers studied forest rehabilitation for people with exhaustion disorders, they made their choice between different forest environments (Sonntag-Öström et al 2011; 2014; 2015a; 2015b). The hypothesis was that the appearance and character of the forest are important when deciding where we want to be. It turned out that the participants preferred open forest environments with space and views: the forest by the lake was most popular, followed by pine forests and mountain forests. The spruce forest and the dense bushy areas lacking a clear view were the least popular environments.
Forest management for recreation
Forest management in Sweden has long been based on obtaining as high a financial return as possible from the forest. Nature is taken into account, but forest management for the well-being of the body and soul is still quite unusual. However, by increasing the rotation time between final harvests, it should be possible and relatively simple to increase the proportion of the forest set aside for recreation and health (Eggers et al 2018; Nordstrom et al 2015).
In Norway, some researchers have come up with a proposal for the zoning of forests for different uses (Gundersen et al 2019): Zone 1 for standard forest management with timber production and some nature consideration, where the owner of the forest receives income from timber production and where the owner of the land can facilitate recreation by voluntarily marking paths and ski trails. Zone 2 having special regard to recreation and/or biodiversity, where forest management is carried out with particular regard to, for example, streams and lakes, unusual forest types, adjacent cultivated landscapes and special wild habitats. The cycle time in zone 2 can be extended and the clearings avoided or made smaller. In addition, the forest owner could mark paths and put up information signs telling visitors about the nature and cultural history of the area. In this zone the forest owner would expect to lose income, so municipality- or state-owned forests are most suitable, as are areas where it is possible to make money from tourists. In Zone 3 for wilderness and nature reserves, no forest management would be carried out and the aim would be to display untouched ecosystems. The forest owner would be compensated for lost income in some way (e.g., by compensation from the county administrative board or other authority for the formation of reserves). Zone 4 would be reserved for recreational services in the surrounding areas. This is the zone frequented by the most people and therefore a more park-like management regime would be required. You could organise special activities and allow sports facilities, visitor centres and hotels. In this environment, the forest owner might be able to find a system for charging visitors, which could compensate for the loss of income from wood production.
Forest environments that people value
One review article suggests that recovery is enhanced in sparse, often coppiced forest stands with less than 500 trees per hectare compared to dense, uncoppiced stands (Kim et al 2021). The therapeutic effect decreases as the density increases.
Another review of the type of forest that people prefer in Norway, Sweden and Finland showed that the higher the trees and the older the forest, the more popular the forest area was (Gundersen & Frivold 2008).
According to one study, Swedes associate well-being with lakes, mountains, old forests, wooded pastures, mature pine forests and farms (Elbakidze et al 2017). Other researchers found that for Swedish forests to be suitable for rehabilitation, they should be old, tall and sparse (Stoltz et al 2016). This is when they have the space and the view needed for recuperation. Another study showed that environments that are peaceful, species-rich, function as a refuge and are natural or at least nature-like, are optimum for recovery (Stigsdotter et al 2017). It is the environments with diverse vegetation and open views (space) with elements of denser vegetation which serve as protection, which are best for recovery.
Norwegian research has shown that forest environments with dead wood or fallen trees are not liked by Norwegians (Gundersen & Frivold 2011). In Finland, all forest has a recuperative effect, but the best effect is obtained from old forest and older production forests, whereas the urban forest and the young production forest are considered to be somewhat less restorative (Simkin et al 2020). Another Finnish study investigated the same forests detailed above (Simkin et al 2021). Recovery in old urban forests, old managed forests and old natural forests was deemed to be good whilst the younger managed forests fared worse. The three older forests also had more qualities appreciated by the study participants: Connection to nature was important for recovery in the old natural forest and the old managed forest. In all forests, beauty was the most important factor in the recovery experience. Biodiversity also contributed to the positive experience of the older forests, except in the urban forest.
One research study suggests that the Italian pine forest has a restorative effect and is perceived as fascinating and as a place where you can get away from everyday life and feel at home (Tomao et al 2018). However, dense forest and dense bush layers were perceived as negative.
In Poland, the importance of dead wood for recovery in a forest environment was tested (Janeczko 2021). Recovery was best in the forest reserve, with the slow and natural decomposition of dead wood, compared to the forest with felling residues or the forest with dead standing trees attacked by the spruce bark beetle. Irregular stands of trees of different sizes were preferred, but the feeling of accessibility and the view were also very important. Large clearings and obvious signs of logging were disliked.
In Austria, all the environments surveyed – moss-covered stones in the forest, a fern glade, a forest glade and a view of wooded mountains – had creative and restorative qualities (Cervinka et al 2020).
In Germany, the demand for a specific type of forest for recreation proved to be low. (Meyer et al 2019). Habit, spontaneity and proximity to home governed the choice of forest.
In the home of forest bathing, it was found that a coppiced Japanese larch forest, with light, space and a view, has a greater effect on recovery from physiological stress than an unmanaged dense forest with no view and no light (Saito et al 2019). Another Japanese study found that coniferous forests have restorative effects regardless of whether they are coppiced or not, but that the positive effect could be enhanced to some degree by coppicing (Takayama et al 2017a). A further Japanese study found that whether a forest was lightly coppiced or uncoppiced made no difference to either preference or recovery (Takayama et al 2017b).
In Korea, the unmanaged, wild forest was more restorative than the managed forest (Lee et al 2018). A Chinese study found that a forest in hilly terrain, a forest with a natural appearance and with landscape elements, such as water, topography and plants, was considered the most restorative (Deng et al 2020).
Forest versus city
In Japanese research, positive feelings, inner strength, self-assessed recuperation and vitality have proved stronger in a forest environment than in urban environments (Takayama et al 2014). A stay in a Japanese forest also contributes to mental well-being and lower cortisol levels (stress hormones), blood pressure and pulse rate, compared with the same activity in an urban environment (Lee et al 2009). Forest environments in Sweden were shown to boost recovery for people with exhaustion disorders more effectively than urban environments, which was demonstrated in lower blood pressure and pulse rate and better mood (Sonntag-Ostrom et al 2014). In Denmark it was noted that heart rate variability (HRV) after a walk in the city or in the forest did not differ, but HRV also showed that walking in both environments was more restorative than staying in the office or taking the bus (Stigsdotter et al 2017). However, the forest walk improved mood and was deemed to be the most restorative.
/Text: Ann Dolling
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