There is so much that we can learn from forests. They are valuable to support biodiversity, to provide resources for human needs, to filter the air and water, and to mitigate climate change through carbon storage. These services are increasingly essential, as global change intensifies the importance of forests’ role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
In honour of the theme for this year’s International Day of Forests, “learning to love forests,” I would like to highlight another dimension of forest services: one that may have an equally central role in increasing the resilience of communities. Namely, the way that forests can influence social networks, and directly affect human health.
A pilot project for social transformation
Solsona is a small town, known for its well-preserved medieval architecture, and situated almost exactly in the middle of the Catalonian region of Spain. It is surrounded by a mountainous landscape, lush with Mediterranean broad leaf forests. Solsona is also home to the Forest Science Centre of Catalonia (CTFC), a research institute focussing on the sustainable development of forests via three interdisciplinary themes: bioeconomy, governance, and resilience. This idyllic and practical setting forms the foundation for an innovative action research pilot project about forests, social networks, and human health that is being co-developed with the Solsona community.
At the core of the project is a collaborative effort with local primary healthcare providers to incorporate forests into holistic recovery and treatment plans, in some cases perhaps even working to supplement pharmaceutical treatment with outdoor activities. Forests have long been recognised for their tangible benefits for human health: they improve air quality, even in bustling cities, and can provide potable water for local populations. In this project, we focus on the intangible health benefits an individual can gain merely from spending time outdoors – like those promoted through the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which has recently gained international attention for its potential in preventative care and mental wellbeing.
Community participation for forest value
While the most central beneficiaries of this pilot project are the patients at Solsona’s local hospital, the project emphasises community participation – both with the aim of developing co-created actions, and to reinforce a sense of collective stewardship and value of forest resources. As such, we have partnered with a local school to expand our impact in the community across generational and social lines. Through a course on leadership and entrepreneurship, the schoolchildren have spent months investing time and care into brainstorming activities and spaces through which hospital patients could engage with the forest. They have produced vibrant artwork, moving poetry, and have even built infrastructure like tents and pathways through the forest.
Solsona is one of many rural Catalonian towns whose population of immigrants is steadily increasing. The students felt strongly that the forest activity programme needed to be multi-lingual in order to be a truly inclusive project. They have translated material in Catalan, Spanish, and Arabic, and have engaged foreign-born community members in project development: an action that also promotes social integration in Solsona.
Local impacts, global change
Although this project is still in its preliminary stages, its successes and lessons learned will provide the foundation for a research project that can shed further light on the importance of forests in building social networks, promoting integration, improving human health through intangible services, and strengthening community efforts to protect and promote forest resources. With support from the Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA) project, this pilot programme contributes to SIMRA’s aim to “advance understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in agriculture, forestry and rural development, and how to boost them, particularly in marginalised rural areas across Europe.”
Through the active engagement of community members from diverse backgrounds to learn about the value of the forest, beyond the most measurable benefits it provides, the Solsona community may be better equipped to adapt to 21st century challenges. These challenges could include health problems linked to lifestyles that constrain how we connect with nature, and with others. This project hopes to bring change by building more sustainable mind-sets, which in turn might create more sustainable habits and lifestyles, thereby building stronger, more conscious, and more resilient communities.