Health, Wellbeing and Urban Forest Gardens

Health, Wellbeing and Urban Forest Gardens

In the run up to our seminars on forest gardens for health and wellbeing, NFGS directors Hannah Gardiner and Richard Luff reflect on the benefits of green space and particularly forest gardens, as well as what qualities we might design into our forest gardening practices to maximise positive outcomes.

Contact with nature is an essential health promotion intervention which can also be used preventatively. Its association with multiple health benefits is well established, including; reducing stress, attention fatigue or symptoms of depression, and encouraging healthy behaviours such as physical activity1,2,3,4. Even just seeing greened vacant lots can have a positive effect on people2, but specific therapeutic gardens are reported to support elderly patients relieve numerous symptoms including alleviation of pain and lowered need for medication, as well as improving chronic mental health conditions1. Urban tree cover in itself has been shown at certain thresholds to reduce prevalence of asthma, depression, stress and anxiety5.

These benefits are increasingly recognised in policy frameworks, for example the UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan emphasises the potential of connecting people to the environment for health and wellbeing. At the global level (which also applies to the UK), the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 ‘cities’ includes this target; “By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.” 

The Five Ways to Wellbeing were developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) based on an extensive international evidence base as part of the 2008 Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. The Mersey forest project is a demonstration of how the 5 ways to wellbeing can be achieved in nature settings, bringing together a really effective blend of nature connection, community, food growing, learning and more. Their project exemplifies the benefits of green social prescribing. Such nature-based prescriptions benefit people and biodiversity, and are highlighted to have a role in our short and long term recovery from COVID-19

‘The five ways to wellbeing’, from:

However, for green space to provide mental health and wellbeing benefits it’s important to ensure accessibility and usability, and quality must be considered as much as quantity6. For example, one Swedish study proposed the following eight perceived sensory dimensions as important properties to enhance the wellbeing benefits of green spaces, particularly for stress reduction7

Serene: peace, silence, care
Space: an experience of entering a world in itself
Nature: fascination with the natural world
Rich in Species: a sense of abundance and variation
Refuge: shelter and safety
Culture: a fascination with human culture and efforts
Prospect: views of landscape, a sense of openness
Social: social activities and interactions
Eight perceived sensory dimensions associated with supporting different needs, from Stoltz and Schaffer (2018); 
in preference order as per Grahn and Stigsdotter, (2010)

There are many ways these qualities can be achieved, but edible forest gardens are a particularly promising one and also provide wider ecological and social sustainability outcomes3. Beyond supporting individual wellbeing, forest gardens can catalyse community life8, positively influence place attachment and food knowledge9, and promote community resilience and pro-environmental behaviour3,6,9. Such social benefits are larger in public access projects as a larger proportion of the population can access and benefit8.

This evidence, alongside the frameworks, gives us a better sense of a broad range of qualities we might wish to design for and create in our forest gardens. It also highlights why it makes sense to include forest garden planting across a broad range of public spaces, including in healthcare settings. Now more than ever urban dwellers need spaces to facilitate nature connection, with its accompanying health and wellbeing benefits, and forest gardens can be part of our response to this.

If you are interested in these topics please do join our free winter seminars ‘Forest Gardening for Well-being; Mind, Body and Ecology Coming Together’ which will run from 20th Jan – 10th Feb 2021. For inspiration on designing a forest garden see our ‘principles of forest gardening’.


  1. Wolf, K.L. and Robbins, A.S.T., (2015) Metro Nature, Environmental Health, and Economic Value. Environmental Health Perspectives, 1235, pp.390–398.
  2. Jerrett, M. and van den Bosch, M., (2018) Nature Exposure Gets a Boost From a Cluster Randomized Trial on the Mental Health Benefits of Greening Vacant Lots. JAMA Network Open, 13, p.1-3. 
  3. Stoltz, J. and Schaffer, C., (2018) Salutogenic Affordances and Sustainability: Multiple Benefits With Edible Forest Gardens in Urban Green Spaces. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, p.2344.
  4. Ma, B., Zhou, T., Lei, S., Wen, Y. and Htun, T.T., (2019) Effects of urban green spaces on residents’ well-being. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 216, pp.2793–2809.
  5. McDonald, R.I., Beatley, T. and Elmqvist, T., (2018) The green soul of the concrete jungle: the urban century, the urban psychological penalty, and the role of nature. Sustainable Earth, 11, p.3.
  6. (8) Zhang, Y., Van den Berg, A., Van Dijk, T. and Weitkamp, G., (2017) Quality over Quantity: Contribution of Urban Green Space to Neighborhood Satisfaction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 145, p.535.
  7. (11) Grahn, P. and Stigsdotter, U.K., (2010) The relation between perceived sensory dimensions of urban green space and stress restoration. Landscape and Urban Planning, 943–4, pp.264–275.
  8. (6) Riolo, F., (2019) The social and environmental value of public urban food forests: The case study of the Picasso Food Forest in Parma, Italy. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 45, pp.1-12.
  9. (7) Colinas, J., Bush, P. and Manaugh, K., (2019) The socio-environmental impacts of public urban fruit trees: A Montreal case-study. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 45, pp.1-13.


The above perceived sensory dimensions of urban green spaces shown were prefered in a survey of 953 randomly selected informants from nine Swedish cities, and therefore proposed as important properties to enhance the wellbeing benefits of green spaces, particularly for stress reduction7. Some researchers propose edible forest gardens to be particularly promising regarding these properties3

Biophilia’ is the concept that humans have an innate need to connect to nature and attraction to natural characteristics that would have been beneficial to our wellbeing through our evolution3, it was coined by E.O Wilson in the 90s and has led to proposals for biophilic cities5. In fact, there is an international Biophilic Cities Network, which Birmingham is a member of. Within modern high density mixed-use cities (aka compact cities) urban green and blue infrastructure is recognised as essential, and some propose without the incorporation of nature urbanism will fail5.