March 21, 2023
Today is International Day of Forests, which offers an opportunity to celebrate this important aspect of the natural world and draw attention to the many benefits that forests provide for communities across Canada. The theme for this year is ‘forests and health’ – an apt choice, as forests help sustain all aspects of Canadian communities, ranging from providing cleaner air and water, to supplying foods and traditional medicines. Access to forests also provides an opportunity to improve the health of Canadians, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases by as much as 12%. The latest IPCC report published this week highlights the importance of forest ecosystems on the path to building healthier and more resilient communities.
Across Canada, health expenditures are projected to rise by 33% over the next decade. Investing in the conservation and restoration of Canadian forests will be an important public health measure. The investments also make economic sense - see a recent study in Southern Ontario, which demonstrates how investments in urban forests can save millions by improving community health.
Investing in forests can also provide significant mental health benefits - a reality that further emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic as many Canadians faced additional stress and anxieties. Forest bathing - spending time in nature - evolved into a crucial outlet for many people during the pandemic as Canadians rushed to parks and protected areas as a way to maintain both their physical and mental health. Smart Prosperity Institute’s recent report on the connection of health and nature identifies forest bathing as having a measurable impact for reducing stress and anxiety, lowering the risk of chronic mood disorders and impulsivity, and significantly promoting long-term mental health in Canada.
Access to healthy forests also represents a significant socio-cultural and economic resource for Indigenous peoples across Canada. For many of these communities, forests represent both a key source of food and fiber, as well as a way to feel connected to local traditions and ceremonies that help reinforce Indigenous identities. Food forests established by the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan are designed to address local food security and establish greater food sovereignty for the community - unlike traditional agriculture that requires extensive crop management such as sowing, irrigation and pest control. Forest gardens in British Columbia are another example of Indigenous land stewardship aimed at building resilient communities by enhancing ecosystems, increasing biodiversity, and strengthening food security. In Canadian cities, investing in healthy and safe urban forests in a way that meaningfully integrates Indigenous peoples in decision-making processes is an effective mechanism for fostering a greater sense of inclusion and cultural dignity through the exercise of land rights.
While everyone can benefit from Canadian forests, access remains inequitable. Low-income households, recent immigrants, people belonging to visible minority groups, and individuals in rental accommodations in Canada can experience significant barriers in accessing high quality urban greenspaces - those that include mature treed areas. The health impact of limited access to urban forests can be significant for vulnerable population groups. During a 2018 heatwave in the City of Montreal, people without adequate access to urban trees and greenspaces were reported to face twice the mortality risk from excessive heat. With the endless march of climate change, ensuring everyone has access and feels safe in Canadian forests must be a top priority to make sure these resources are being managed for the benefit of all local community members.
Forests greatly support our mental and physical health, yet this relationship is often overlooked in public policy. In Canada, the connection between health and nature are clear - access to greenspaces mean an improvement in physical and mental health, and enhanced resilience to climate change. With growing evidence that it makes economic sense to invest in the conservation and restoration of Canadian forests, there are a number of significant ways to accelerate the impact forests are having for maintaining health and well-being across Canada:
1) Mainstream the business case for investing in Canadian forests. Investments in forests provide a number of clear and quantifiable benefits - e.g., reducing the risk of flooding and extreme heat, increasing carbon sequestration, and contributing to local economic development. Integrating these considerations into project-level decision making can help prioritize nature-based investments by accounting for both cost savings and co-benefits.
2) Integrate public health considerations for decisions that affect forest ecosystems. Direct and indirect benefits from Canadian forests provide a diversity of pathways for releasing increasing pressures on public health infrastructure. Highlighting the mental and physical health impact of forests within existing decision-making structures will enable a clearer sense of the public health benefits of investing in forest ecosystems.
3) Make science-based decisions to limit the impact of industrial development. To meet the needs of a growing population while ensuring a sustainable and equitable transition to a low-carbon net-zero economy, more mining, housing, and transportation infrastructure is needed. Advancing projects that are designed to integrate the costs of regional development can help avoid unnecessary degradation to the resilience of key natural systems.
4) Ensure Indigenous voices are integrated into decision making processes that directly or indirectly impact land use decisions. Exercising land rights through the deliberate management of forest ecosystems can be an important tool to advance reconciliation efforts in Canada, while providing a greater sense of inclusion for all peoples.
Over the last decade, Canada’s forests have emerged as a pillar of public health - longstanding contributions to physical and mental health are increasingly being highlighted as many Canadians continue to struggle with challenges from urbanization, climate change, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Accelerating investments in the protection and restoration of forest ecosystems provides the opportunity to reinforce public health in communities across Canada.
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