Interview #1 in our series with public health officials on the connection between nature and public health. 

Sherry Nigro:  Manager of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Ottawa Public Health

"While the association between spending time in nature with positive mental health has been intuitively understood for centuries, research provides the science to back it up." 

Photos:  Tree Fest Ottawa


Mer Bleue Bog - a conservation area in the east end of Ottawa.

Mer Bleue Bog - a conservation area in the east end of Ottawa.

Q.1. Do you have a favourite childhood memory related to spending time in nature?

I would be hard-pressed to identify childhood memories that are not related to nature and being outdoors. I grew up on a small mixed farm (grain and animals) in rural Saskatchewan. I put in my time in the garden and with the chores but was free to wander the fields and forests at will. I was a great collector–rocks and flower species mostly.

Q.2. From a public health perspective, what are some of the ways urban forests benefit humans’ mental health?

While the association between spending time in nature with positive mental health has been intuitively understood for centuries, research provides the science to back it up. Going for a walk in nature results in lower levels of stress hormones in the blood and reduced blood flow to the area of the brain that is associated with brooding and depressive thinking. Even seeing trees and vegetation through a window can reduce blood pressure and stress, and it also improves post -surgical recovery times. The literature shows that children who spend time in nature sleep better, feel calmer, are less stressed, and have better self-esteem and well-being. These are all important ingredients for mental health.

School field trip to MacSkimming - an Outdoor Education Centre in Ottawa's east end.

School field trip to MacSkimming - an Outdoor Education Centre in Ottawa's east end.

 Q.3. In what ways do city trees affect people’s physical health?

Trees themselves contribute to the environment in many ways. They are vital to the integrity of the soil and water tables. They serve important functions related to air quality; they provide respite from the heat and, for inner cities, they reduce the heat retention that occurs with concrete and asphalt; they also provide a buffer from the noise of the city and of course provide shade!  

There appear to be therapeutic effects to seeing green space. Trees provide some of the most dramatic and visually appealing components to a green view. With their height, they are also easily visible from a window or upper stories. The beauty appeals to us and draws us out. We know that people who spend time outside are more active; physical activity is linked with many health benefits including chronic disease prevention and management.

 Q.4. How do urban green space, such as parks, forests, wetlands and community gardens promote community well-being?  What is the social function of these spaces?

There is good evidence that people exposed to green spaces show lower mental distress and higher well-being. The Toronto Public Health report, Green City: Why Nature Matters to Health, notes that while well-being is difficult to measure, there is research that points to a significant increase in a sense of belonging and purpose, happiness, better recovery from illness and longer life expectancy with exposure to green spaces. Considering that the data was drawn from sample sizes of 10,000 to over 250,000 people, this evidence is compelling.

Besides the physical effects that green space has on our bodies and brains, there is also social connectedness that occurs from having a shared experience. Research by the Children and Nature Network supports that being outside as a family facilitates having the time and experience in common and strengthens family bonds. The benefits aren’t just for young people: the quality of natural spaces in urban setting has also been linked to older adults living longer.

In my experience there is also something that is more instinctual, perhaps spiritual, out in nature that happens at an individual level. And this seems to be something that resonates with people; many people seem to intuitively feel connection. The American Public Health Association has released a policy statement that notes that access to nature is related not only to a greater sense of well-being, but it is also the place where we create more relationships. Social connectedness protects us against harms, including mental illness, and is a significant factor in an overall sense of well-being.

Fishing in the Rideau River at Brewer Park.

Fishing in the Rideau River at Brewer Park.

Q.5 Is the green space in Ottawa equally distributed throughout the city? If not, what effect does this have on various population groups in Ottawa?

Ottawa has an abundance of ecological and natural treasures within the boundaries of the City. We have two rivers, farm land including the Experimental Farm in the heart of the city, beaches, urban forests, and the Green Belt. Ottawa has more maintained parkland and open space per capita than any other large city in Ontario, except for Thunder Bay. With over 850 parks and almost 250 kilometres of trails there is a wealth of natural resource. 

While Ottawa has a wealth of natural settings, not all residents have easy access to the pristine environments of Petrie Island, Mud Lake, Richelieu Park or Kemp Woodland. There are several factors that affect how well people can access green space–the physical availability within easy distance, the quality and maintenance of the space, and its safety. Safety concerns like crime, wild animals, and even insects such as mosquitoes can influence the decision to spend time in nature. In addition, people who do not have previous exposure or experience spending time outdoors are less likely to feel comfortable in nature.

That said, some population groups are more likely to use local spaces like parks and beaches, as they have limited access to transportation to go to national and provincial destinations outside Ottawa. It is important to ensure equitable local access for everyone, for example by eliminating financial barriers, making public transit to green spaces available, keeping green spaces maintained to reduce the risks and optimize the aesthetics, and ensuring that local programming is available to help people learn about local green space. The City of Ottawa and numerous community and volunteer organizations provide many options for all residents.

 Q.6. Why is it particularly important for children to get out into nature?

Being out in nature:

  • increases their physical activity, and the majority of children are not getting the recommended 60 minutes per day.

  • will help them have a healthier weight.

  • helps them sleep better at night.

  • reduces their risk of nearsightedness.

  • gives them a chance to test their physical capabilities (can I climb to that branch? can I hop over this puddle?) and learn new physical skills while they are doing it.

  • learning new skills increases their sense of self-mastery and self-confidence.

  • will learn about and develop respect for the environment, including the flora and fauna around them.

  • is stimulating–the senses are exposed to colours, light, textures, smells and sounds that cannot be replicated away from nature.

  • forces them to be away from their TV, computer screens and game consoles.

  • they will meet new people and make new friends.

  • they will always have a story to tell when they get home or to school or to their grandparents’ place.

  • helps children concentrate better, even those with attention deficit disorder.

  • they will do better in school.

  • reduces their stress and anxiety.

  • provides them with a sense of belonging and connectedness. Having a strong sense of belonging is a strong protective factor for mental health problems.

  • they will be happier.

I could go on …

Commissioner's Park beside Dow's Lake

Commissioner's Park beside Dow's Lake

Q.7. What is the link between availability of green spaces and physical activity?

People who have access to nature and green space are more physically active. Inactivity and unhealthy weights are arguably the most significant public health issues of today. In a recent report to the Ottawa Board of Health, it was noted that in 2011 physical inactivity and unhealthy eating cost the province of Ontario an estimated 3.8 billion dollars in direct health care costs and 2 billion dollars in indirect costs, for a total of almost 6 billion dollars. Physical activity not only contributes to healthy weights, it also has implications for better cardiovascular health, metabolic functions, bone and muscle development and maintenance, and stress reduction.

Q.8. How is Ottawa Public Health working with other government departments to protect and ensure healthy urban environments that promote better health?

Promoting natural environments within our cities is a shared priority across many sectors. Federally, provincially and municipally there are ministries and departments for the environment, for natural resources, for agriculture, for parks and recreation, for tourism, and for public health that are all vested in promoting healthier environments. The  Strategic Plan for the Public Health Sector, released by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in 2014, has identified one priority to “promote healthy environments–both natural and built.”

The Ottawa Board of Health’s current Strategic Plan includes the following priority: “to inspire and support healthy eating and active living.” Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is working to advance natural and built environments in Ottawa with other municipal departments such as Planning and Growth Management, Environmental Services, and Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services to ensure municipal policies and plans will protect and promote both quality and quantity of natural green spaces and urban vegetation.

 Q.9. What campaigns does OPH currently have to encourage more people to spend time in nature?

OPH is collaborating with several partners to encourage and enable people to spend time in nature. We are a founding partner in the Gottawalk coalition to encourage people to walk for practical and leisure purposes. In collaboration with the Ottawa Public Library, short routes have been mapped in the vicinity of the city’s 33 community libraries. We are very excited about the opportunities with the City of Ottawa’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department to promote the Healthy Kids Community Challenge and with our Planning and Growth Management partners to promote Ottawa’s parks, conservation areas and wetlands.

OPH has hosted several Photovoice contests to encourage people to engage in photographing nature around them. Contests done in local schools revealed that many youth celebrate time in nature. The Parenting in Ottawa web site invited parents to submit photographs taken by their children that depict scenes in nature that made them feel happy. The web pages about children and nature were very popular.

 OPH continues to promote the health benefits of nature through the Parenting in Ottawa website and Facebook page. Through social media, we are encouraging families to share their tips for getting outside and to also share their favourite green spaces in Ottawa.

 Q.10. Finally, do you have a favourite tree in Ottawa? If so, which one and where is it located?

 Good question, and I have two answers.

My favourite type of tree is the linden. I think the fragrance is the most beautiful of all scents. It is lovely to walk or run through neighbourhoods in June and smell the trees. Last summer while canoeing at Petrie Island, I was in awe of lindens–the massive trees were full of blooms, overhanging the water and what fragrance!!

 But my favourite tree(s) are two white pines in our backyard. It is a bit of a love-hate thing; they are always dropping –something–needles, pollen, flowers and more needles. But they are so vibrant and green all year and shelter the many birds that come to the backyard feeder.