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Univ. of the Washington Nature and Health program studies the link between environment and well-being

Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park in Washington state. (Photo by Kevin Lisota)

It started as an idea among friends over beers. Now the University of Washington Nature and Health The initiative helps government organizations secure funding for multi-million dollar projects.

Take the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest or Snohomish County, for example. The two recently secured $ 18 million and $ 22 million in funding and grants, respectively, largely thanks to data collected by researchers at Nature and Health.

Nature et Santé studies the link between the environment and human well-being. It has projects and studies in a myriad of fields as it aims to be a driver of environmental health and technological innovation for years to come.

The origins of the group can be traced back to a small group of scientists and researchers at UW who met members of the outdoor and conservation industries in breweries. They discussed their interest in the link between human health and the environment.

Josh Lawler, Director of Nature and Health at the University of Washington. (Photo UW)

Doctors and policymakers joined us, drafted a framework document, and in 2018 a $ 1 million investment from REI turned this informal collaboration into a formal program. Director Josh lawler says that now more than 300 people are involved in Nature and Health.

Nature and Health’s stated goal is to understand the human health benefits of contact with nature and, according to its website, “to translate this understanding into programs, practices, policies and the design of health, educational and health frameworks. communities that benefit everyone. people.”

At the moment, the initiative is mostly in the research phase, with active studies focusing on everything from using Twitter to study the influence of nature on people’s moods, to the use of design. participatory apps to encourage outdoor exploration in tweens. The latter in particular is an evolution of a climate video game program that Lawler helped launch in 2016.

Lawler, who is primarily a researcher, teaches at UW’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and helps run the Landscape Ecology and Conservation Lab. He is also a member of the Ecological Society of America.

Lawler told GeekWire that he is passionate about using research and science to impact people and communities outside of academia. These interests suit Lawler well as Director of Nature and Health, as collaboration and the desire to benefit people are fundamental to the initiative.

The pandemic has upset and modified the work of Nature et Santé. One of his current projects is with The Trust for Public Land to study the health impacts of the Tacoma Green Schoolyards project, which aims to transform asphalt playgrounds in underserved schools into parks accessible to the community.

But the benefits of green playgrounds are hard to see when students are stuck at home. While the design and community engagement process took off in a remote environment, “not much of what was planned could have happened” over the past year, said Professor Dr Pooja Tandon. at UW and a researcher at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. .

But for other teams under the aegis of Nature and Health, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to use technology-based research methods. Spencer Wood, senior science researcher at UW’s eScience Institute, studies the popularity of trails to educate land managers such as the US Forest Service and the Washington Trails Association.

The pandemic has forced his team to change their approach. It was difficult to conduct surveys in person, which is why he created a software platform that provided information on self-reported trails.

Wood and his team provided this data submitted by the hikers to the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Snohomish County, helping them land the recent grants.

So far, Wood’s research and the grants he helped land are a relatively unique example of Nature and Health’s work having real impact. But Lawler said Nature and Health was starting to turn from research to implementing more concrete policies and designs. While continuing to lay the foundation for research, Nature and Health will strive to optimize the health benefits of human interactions with nature for years to come.