Roots and Shoots: Get to Know Your Leafy Neighbors

By Pamela Doan

When you live in the woods and sing “Who are the people in your neighborhood” from Sesame Street with your child, it takes on a new meaning. For many people who want to have a more closely connected relationship with the natural environment around them, the trees, wildlife and vegetation can be considered part of the “people in the neighborhood” when you’re teaching a child about nature.

A recent study found that in urban areas, the number of trees that people encountered on a daily basis had an impact on their health, well-being and even their income. In neighborhoods where there were the most street trees, not just trees in backyards or public spaces like parks, people had fewer health problems and more wealth.

It gets broken down even further. In a study published in Nature this month, a group of seven researchers summarized their findings:

We find that having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger. We also find that having 11 more trees in a city block, on average, decreases cardio-metabolic conditions in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $20,000 higher median income or being 1.4 years younger.

This builds on research that demonstrates that trees improve air quality by filtering pollutants, and people who spend 20 minutes a day in a natural environment have lower stress levels, fewer cardiac problems and better focus. Know many older people who are gardeners? They just might outlive you.

Native beauty in a penstemon flower (photo by P. Doan)

Native beauty in a penstemon flower (photo by P. Doan)

The Department of Environmental Conservation lists numerous studies on their website that have proven the health benefits of forests. Better immune systems and sleep, more energy, faster recovery times and lower blood pressure are among the many benefits they tout. The evidence is convincing that trees improve the quality of our lives in many ways, and we’re fortunate to live in a place where nature is easily accessible.

This week is Invasive Species Awareness Week in New York, and the many talks, walks and events highlight the threats to those environments we cherish so much. Locally, the Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) has organized species-removal action days, informative events focusing on native plant alternatives to some popular but aggressive nonnative plants, and other events to bring the problem to the public’s attention. The bottom line is, if we want to keep those natural spaces beautiful, they need our help.

When I look at the other “people in my neighborhood,” unfortunately I see more unwanted species colonizing the landscape than I see native plants. Taking walks with the baby and identifying plants reveals a host of garlic mustard, Japanese barberry, black swallowwort and so many others. One of the activities that PRISM organized was an effort to better catalogue the invasive plants and what percent of a certain area they dominate. A depressing endeavor, but very useful.

There is a tool called iMap Invasives that citizen scientists can use to add data to a statewide database. The information can then be used to track and manage the spread of invasive species. I am focusing on plants and trees here, but it also applies to insects, wildlife and aquatic species, too. For example, the zebra mussel has been rapidly wiping out native mussel populations.

That’s the main characteristic of an invasive species. It thrives in an introduced environment where the controls from predators and other conditions present in its native habitat don’t exist. It can fundamentally alter the new habitat, making it unlivable for native species to thrive or continue to exist. These species move around the world with our flow of trade and travel.

Zebra mussels are native to the Caspian Sea. They probably arrived stuck to a boat and then we kept moving them around the U.S. on other boats. Humans are very convenient modes of transportation.

One major action that anyone can do to stem the flow is to start planting native species in home landscapes and simply become more conscious of the “people in your neighborhood.” Becoming aware of what’s there versus what should be there can drive better decisions. While you’re out there in the yard, go ahead and plant a tree, too. It will make you feel like a million youthful bucks, almost literally.

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