Kentucky-based nuns are leading the charge on climate change. Read the story here.
The health benefits of trees
By Lynn Hamilton
Most people want to live on a green leafy street with plenty of tree canopy, whether they live in the suburbs, the country, or the inner city.
But now it’s official: a greener street makes you healthier. Omid Kardan, a professor and researcher with the University of Chicago, conducted a survey of residents in Toronto, comparing the health of those who live on tree-rich streets to the health of those on streets more barren of trees.
The results might surprise you. Even in a big city like Toronto, residents in leafier parts of town reported better health. Specifically, their blood pressure was lower, and they were more likely to have a healthy weight. Blood sugar issues, such as overly high glucose, were also fewer in the tree covered streets.
That’s significant because high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity lead to a host of major health problems such as heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, kidney failure, and liver failure, to mention the most problematic. Obesity, in particular, is a frequent predictor of death.
As we know, better health leads to a longer life. But it also gives you more energy and zest for day-to-day living. As few as ten additional trees on a city block give its residents a health boost equivalent to being seven years younger.
There are any number of ways that trees in a residential neighborhood can affect health. They trap pollution that might otherwise find its way into a home. Trees absorb noxious particulates as well as gasses. In 2010, a forester by the name of Dave Nowak found that trees prevented over 600,000 cases of respiratory distress and prevented at least 850 deaths in the United States.
Trees also reduce the chances of flooding and the myriad of health problems that arise from a flooded basement, such as mold and toxic bacteria. They reduce summer heat and encourage people to get outside and take a stroll or a run around the neighborhood. People who get such moderate exercise are more likely to be healthy, maintain a normal weight, and live longer, happier lives.
The recent Toronto study filtered out variables such as diet, age, income, and education. Kardan admits, of course, that he can’t screen out every variable. It could be the case that healthier people choose to live on more tree-lined blocks. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore his findings. And they are backed up by other studies.
Researchers in Japan studied the effects of time spent on Yakushima island, a locale known for its rich biodiversity and lovely tree canopy. These Japanese scientists found that trees and other plants throw off beneficial bacteria and oils that we inhale. When these beneficial elements enter our systems, they fight off toxins and malevolent bacteria that can, otherwise, make us sick.
New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation offers some further observations on the link between trees and human health. The beneficial bacteria that trees exude is called phytoncides. They are a sort of natural insect repellant. Trees throw off phytoncides to discourage termites and other tree-destroying organisms from dining on the trees’ trunks.
Because of these phytoncides, even a short, three-day stay in a forest increases the number of beneficial white blood cells, also known as “natural killer cells,” in a person’s body. The presence of these white blood cells improves a person’s immunity to disease and infection.
Admittedly, much of the benefit people derive from trees is psychological and emotional. But it is also well known that our mood and emotions directly impact health. Stress causes a whole list of negative health concerns including hypertension, accelerated heart rate, and overeating. Increased rates of cortisol and adrenaline in the bloodstream have been linked to stress. A walk in the woods or a stroll down a tree lined street definitely alleviates stress and increases a sense of well being, while providing very real and physiological health benefits. And you don’t have to hike in a remote, old-growth forest to reap the results. Even looking at pictures of trees is calming, though not as beneficial as a walk in a leafy neighborhood.
Trees are especially meaningful to children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Children with ADHD typically find it difficult to concentrate, and they often do poorly in school because they lack an ability to focus. For decades, children diagnosed with ADHD were routinely put on one or more drugs to help them succeed academically and socially.
Scientists and doctors now believe, however, that spending time among trees is a tremendous help in alleviating the symptoms of ADHD. Such therapy has the advantage of being affordable and it doesn’t have the inevitable side effects of pharmacological treatment. Schools that are built near a small forest or which incorporate a forested area in their construction have the potential to greatly help students with ADHD.
You might be surprised to learn that trees are beneficial to hospital patients, especially people who have experienced a serious illness or undergone major surgery. Hospital patients suffer not just from the complications of their illness, but also from stress, lack of privacy, and fear. Even a view of trees out a hospital window can make a positive difference in a patient’s recovery. Patients with a view of greenery have fewer postoperative complications, science has discovered. They also have shorter hospital stays and don’t need as many addictive pain medications.
The United States had an unfortunate occasion for studying the impact of trees on health. Since 2002, the emerald ash borer, a tree destroying beetle, has devastated the country’s ash trees. Studies found that, in neighborhoods where ash trees had to be removed, there was a serious spike in lung disease- and heart disease-related mortality.
In fact, the Atlantic reports that trees are so important to human health, they save Americans $6.8 billion dollars in health care per year.
More research is definitely needed on the relationship between trees and human health. But, in the meantime, one of the best things you can do for your family and your neighborhood is to plant a tree.
The Economic Benefits of Trees
By Lynn Hamilton
Cities that protect their trees have higher property values, expanding tax bases, and business prosperity. And yet, many cities have done little to nothing to protect trees on either public or private property.
One such municipality is Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville’s city council member Tom Hollander tried to pass a tree ordinance that would protect both street trees and “heritage trees” on private land. The originally proposed ordinance would have protected trees of a certain height and width, trees that provide shade and flood protection to several houses in the neighborhood, from being capriciously cut down by their owners.
But by the time council members and developers had chipped away at it, the tree ordinance passed is possibly worse than useless. It allows people to replant smaller trees than previously when they cut down trees on public land.
Every town and city needs a tree ordinance that protects trees on both private and public land, because trees positively impact economic development and protect neighborhoods from flooding and overheating.
According to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, “One hundred mature trees catch about 139,000 gallons of rainwater per year.”1
In many parts of Louisville, rain water truly has nowhere to go but directly to our basements or, in the absence of a basement, our houses. The city’s Germantown neighborhood is a case in point. One hundred year old houses, built only four or fewer feet apart, combined with near complete deforestation of street trees leaves people with flooded cellars on a regular basis.
Many of us are also suffering the high utility costs of a treeless neighborhood: “Strategically placed trees save up to 56% on annual air-conditioning costs. Evergreens that block winter winds can save 3% on heating.”1 Trees are also well known to buffer homes from wind damage.
A replacement sapling does not fill the place of a mature tree. In most cases, it will take a sapling at least twenty years to begin to replace a mature tree.
I know that the Louisville’s mayor’s office is very interested in what is happening with the municipality’s peer cities, so I did some research on the most economically successful of these cities and found that they have all taken measures to protect their trees.
Nashville, which has gotten far ahead of Louisville in terms of population growth and economic development, requires homeowners to plant trees to restore tree density to the area: 1. “Each property . . . shall attain a tree density factor of at least fourteen units per acre using protected or replacement trees, or a combination of both.”2
Indianapolis protects all flora of more than twelve inches in height on public property: “No person shall damage, remove, deaden, destroy, break, carve, cut, deface, trim or in any way injure or interfere with any flora that is located in or on any public street, alley, right-of-way, place or park within the city without the written consent of the division of construction and business services first obtained, except as may be necessary in an emergency to remove or abate any dangerous or unsafe condition.”5
Charlotte, North Carolina protects trees on public land and private land. They recognize heritage trees which were removed from the current Louisville tree ordinance.6
Cincinnati’s tree ordinance protects public trees.3,4 Columbus, Ohio plants 2000 trees every year to mitigate loss of trees through tree removal.7 Dayton, Ohio forbids removal of public trees without a permit.8
As you can see, there is every reason to pass a tree ordinance that protects significant trees on both private and public property. Today’s recommended action: Obtain a copy of your local tree ordinance. If you don’t have one, call a city council member and ask him to start the process of creating one.
If your town already has a tree ordinance, read it and offer suggested improvements to your local leaders.
- “Economic Benefits of Trees”. Department of Environmental Conservation. New York State. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- “SUBSTITUTE ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-328”. gov. City of Nashville, TN. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- “Urban Forestry”. com. City of Cincinnati, Ohio. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- “Urban Forestry”. com. City of Cincinnati. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- “TREES AND FLORA”. com. City of Indianapolis. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- “Chapter 21 – TREES”. com. City of Charlotte, North Carolina. Retrieved 27 November2017.
- “Recreation and Parks Department”. gov. City of Columbus, Ohio. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
- “City of Dayton, Ohio Zoning Code”. org. City of Dayton, Ohio. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
Badass Nuns Assume the Lead on Climate Action
By Lynn Hamilton
In the sleepy town of Nazareth, Kentucky, a revolution is brewing. And it’s led by a band of women in their eighties.
Nazareth is the headquarters of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Their mission has spread from Kentucky to Belize, Nepal, Botswana, and India where the SCN have established missions, schools, and hospitals.
It will come as no surprise, especially to Catholics, that these sisters have dedicated themselves to the betterment of the poor. What came as a surprise to me was that they now consider the earth to be one of the poor.
You heard right. The Sisters realize the earth is about as desperate as a homeless drug addict. Cataclysmic floods, loss of crops, and loss of endangered species are all predicted outcomes of climate change. Though their average age in the United States is 82, these sisters know climate change is real, and they are taking action.
That’s why they have declared their intent to make all their residences, schools, hospitals, and other services, worldwide, carbon neutral in the years to come. Their goals for sustainability put most multi-national corporations to shame.
“They’re pretty badass,” says Carolyn Comer, the woman hired by the Sisters to be their Director of Ecological Sustainability.
At a recent meeting of the Louisville Sustainability Forum, Comer explained how the Sisters became radicalized.
It started in 1995 when they got together to create a mission statement. Part of that statement was “care for the earth.”
In time, that commitment manifested as solar panels on the Nazareth campus, energy efficient windows on their historic buildings, and on-demand water heaters. Having done their research, they are buying electric zero turn motor lawn mowers, which are the lawnmower equivalents of a Tesla.
They are in the process of converting all their lighting, both inside and out, to LED lighting. In India, they practice water capture and sequester cow manure for conversion to biogas, with which they cook their meals. They also harvest and use rainwater. One of their hospitals in India is seventy percent powered by solar energy, captured in batteries.
In July, the sisters got together again. And this time they decided that caring for the earth meant they needed to get to zero green house gas emissions. They plan to get there by 2037 in the United States and Belize, and 2047 in the other countries. Comer notes that this goal is aligned both with United Nations recommendations on addressing climate change and with the Paris Agreement.
In addition to that ambitious goal, the sisters are also going zero waste. And that required an assessment of their trash. “We opened up trash cans and weighed things,” said Comer.
They have established recycling stations for eight categories of waste. And they’re brainstorming how to establish composting in individual sisters’ apartments.
One of the order’s resources is its many acres of land, located in missions across five countries. They are sowing native plants, which benefit wildlife, birds, and bees. They are restoring vegetative buffers on their lakes and streams. And they are looking into creating conservation easements to protect natural resources on their land for perpetuity.
“They walk the talk in a way that is really humbling,” says Comer.
The SCN’s “green team” is a subgroup of nuns particularly passionate about fulfilling their zero emission goals. They engaged the University of Kentucky to teach them how to conduct their own energy audits. Once these audits are complete, the goal is to look at the order’s energy consumption and ask “How can we . . . winnow that down?” Comer says.
None of this is pie in the sky. The sisters are well aware that transportation, the leading contributor to climate change, poses an obstacle. They drive an average of 6000 miles a year, each.
That’s not a lot of mileage, comparatively, but “there are a lot of them,” Comer observes. They’ve bought one all-electric vehicle and one plug-in hybrid, and they’re learning to drive them.
“Really, this is where everyone needs to be,” says Comer.
The nuns’ revolution, however, depends on a revolution in airplane technology. These are, after all, flying nuns. But not the Sally Field kind. They fly in fossil fuel-consuming jets. They can’t realize their goals for mitigating climate change until there is a radical new technology for travel.
I guess this is where the faith comes in. I’m not the only one praying for new technology that will let us travel from coast to coast without sacrificing our morality. I know Ed Begley, Jr. prays for that. So, I assume, do the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
Science will need to step up to the plate, too. Come on now, y’all. Don’t let eighty year old nuns do all the work of saving the world.