It started as an idea between friends over beers. Now, the University of Washington’s Nature and Health initiative is helping government organizations land funding for multi-million dollar projects.
Take the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, or Snohomish County, for example. The two recently secured $18 million and $22 million in funding and grants, respectively, due in large part to data collected by Nature and Health researchers.
Nature and Health 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 technology innovation for years to come.
The group’s origin dates back to a small group of scientists and researchers from the UW who met at breweries with members of the outdoor and conservation industries. They discussed their interest in the link between human health and the environment.
Doctors and policymakers joined in, wrote a framework paper, and in 2018 a $1 million investment from REI turned the loose collaboration into an official program. Director Josh Lawler said that now more than 300 people are involved with Nature and Health.
The stated goal of Nature and Health is to understand the human-health benefits of nature contact and, according to its website, “to translate that understanding into programs, practices, policies, and the design of healthcare, educational and community settings that benefit all 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 leveraging participatory app design to encourage outdoor exploration in tweens. The latter in particular is an evolution from a climate video game program Lawler helped launch in 2016.
Lawler, who is primarily a research scientist, teaches in the School of Environmental and Forest sciences at the UW, and helps run the Landscape Ecology and Conservation Lab. He’s also a fellow for the Ecological Society of America.
Lawler told GeekWire he’s 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 brought both disruption and change to Nature and Health’s work. One of its current projects is with The Trust for Public Land to study the health impacts of the Tacoma Green Schoolyards Project, which aims to turn asphalt playgrounds in underserved schools into community-accessible parks.
But the benefits of green playgrounds are difficult to study when students are stuck at home. While the design and community engagement process got off the ground in a remote setting, “not a lot that was planned was able to happen” over the past year, said Dr. Pooja Tandon, a UW professor and researcher at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
But for other teams under the Nature and Health umbrella, the pandemic provided an opportunity to utilize tech-based research methods. Spencer Wood, a senior research scientist with the UW’s eScience Institute, studies trail popularity to inform land managers such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Trails Association.
The pandemic forced his team to change its approach. It was difficult to conduct in-person surveys, so it created a software platform that allowed for self-reported trail information.
Wood and his team provided that hiker-submitted data to the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Snohomish County, helping them land the recent grants.
For now, Wood’s research and the grants it helped land are a relatively unique example of Nature and Health’s work driving real impact. But Lawler said Nature and Health is starting to turn from research toward more concrete policy and design implementation. As it continues to lay a broad research foundation, Nature and Health will be working to optimize the health benefits of human interactions with nature for years to come.