Behind the Research: Meet Dr. Kathleen Wolf

How did you get interested in your field of work?      

Both of my parents came from farming families in the Midwest. My dad was a landscape contractor and avid outdoorsman. So being in nature was just part of growing up in the Pacific Northwest. I attended a liberal arts college where I majored in Biology, but was interested in both social and biological systems. My first real job? I was the first  urban forester for the City of Key West. I loved the intersection of the temperate and tropical flora in the Keys. Landscape architects started calling me to specify plants for their designs. I enjoyed working with them, and thought, this is it, a professional connection between people and plants. So, I went on to pursue a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Michigan. While there I took classes with environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. I was hooked; their studies of nature and human response were fascinating. They developed the Attention Restoration Theory, the idea that that our busy lifestyles deplete our ability to concentrate and be productive, so we need to spend time outside to recharge. So, I ‘re-enlisted’ for the Ph.D. program and continued with studies about the  patterns of human response to nature. This research, a passion, combines nature, science, culture, and (sometimes) design.

Your current research focuses on nature and human health. What is your ultimate goal with this line of study?

Research confirms that humans literally need time in nature, and I’m proud to have been part of that community of science. Evidence demonstrates that everyone needs access to “nearby nature” on a regular basis. This is not about that occasional vacation trip, or getting away from the city. It’s about every person having a consistent supply of ‘metro nature’ around them all the time. Next we need to provide nature programs that encourage more healthful activities. Some people don’t recognize nature benefits or don’t know how to enter that space. Programs like “Walk with a Doc” or “Yoga in the Park” can help. Of late I’ve become interested in making the availability of nature part of city policy beyond urban forestry, to elevate the science of nature benefits to city-wide change. The need(!) for trees, parks, and gardens needs to be integrated with housing policy, transportation policy, and so on, so it becomes part of all city systems.

What trends do you see in this area of research?

The research is expanding; I think the bigger change is social change. There is now greater public awareness and recognition by public officials of nature and human health benefits. And people in environmental health have traditionally focused on clean air and water, and removing toxins. Now they’re looking at nature in cities as a salutogenic influence, a way to prevent disease and promote health. This leads to all sorts of new research questions:

  • What is the best “dose” of nature? Where, how much, how often?
  • What are the characteristics of nature (e.g., native plants vs. ornamental) that are better for human health?
  • Do people of different cultural backgrounds, age groups, etc. require different types or doses of nature?
  • Do different clinical situations (i.e., asthma vs. heart problems, etc.) call for different nature encounters?

There’s also more interest in collaboration across science disciplines. At the University of Washington, we have a cross-campus Nature & Health group that welcomes all comers. It is hosted by REI and the UW Center for Creative Conservation. We discuss research plans, and lots of topics, including equity and diversity within urban forestry, and management plans for urban forestry that include human health. 

What’s next with your research?

I’m working with Health Canada and Natural Resources Canada on a literature review of city trees and human health response, and estimate that an article will be ready to submit in about six months. The next step would be to monetize those health benefits. Then in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service, I will be teaming up to develop a Health Metrics Toolkit for community-oriented projects. It will be sort of like i-Tree, but with a human health orientation. It will allow communities to measure the health outcomes of their local programs. Ages and stages . . . lately I’m elevating my interest in human health and nature research to broader situations such as community level metrics or city level policy.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of wisdom you’d like to share?

Trees and arboriculture are important. But I think we should take urban forestry to another level in many communities. Trees are part of human health solutions, but we may need to take a broader look at how we define nature in cities and who we partner with.