When temperatures keep my young sons and me from heading outside, we get our nature fix by looking through their bedroom window. Outside a scraggly tree-of-heaven, a weed native to Asia and common in vacant lots in New York City, presses up against the glass of our fourth floor Brooklyn apartment windows. The tree found its way into the garden below by happenstance, but has become an interactive and engaging presence in our daily lives.
My children and I gaze at its now bare twigs, anticipating leaves that will unfurl in springtime. In summer its foliage will keep us hidden like tree-house inhabitants. We are captivated by the squirrels that scurry through its branches. House sparrows often perch within; their songs greet my boys when they wake in the morning. As a botanist, I know this tree causes ecological trouble by invading local woodlands. Yet as a mother, I would fight to save it, because it has come to feel like family.
In the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the borough is depicted as such a harsh, desperate place that only one thing is able to grow there "out of neglected rubbish heaps" and "out of cement." This is the tree.
But this tree-of-heaven is more than a scruffy neighbor, it also bolsters our well-being. As humble as it is, the view of nature outside our windows has positive effects on our emotional health, mental acuity, and productivity; and recently-passed legislation points us to a future where such a view will not be left to luck.
There is research to back up these assertions. Psychologists at the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois surveyed residents of the country's largest public housing project in Chicago. The study showed that people who lived in apartments overlooking trees and a patch of grass reported feeling healthier, more productive, and less aggressive than neighbors whose views were of alleys and concrete. They also scored higher on cognitive function tests. The findings are clear: The view outside our collective urban windows matters.
In fact, there is a body of scientific data that demonstrates the strong connections between nearby nature and healthy human behavior and function. Post-surgery patients with tree-filled vistas experienced less pain, swifter recoveries and shorter hospital stays. In Tokyo, walkable green space added years to the lives of senior citizens. Outdoor plantings in high density areas was shown to reduce crime. In Britain, proximity to green spaces was correlated with lower mortality rates, especially for those in the lower-income brackets.
The tree-of-heaven outside our Brooklyn apartment is more than mere window dressing; it also improves our health, mood, and creativity. In New York City, where flora and fauna can be scarce, our view is a precious commodity. But it is pure luck that we have it at all since the tree arrived here by chance. As much as my sons delight in the tree, sometimes I daydream about less bedraggled alternatives. Instead of accidental, what if our view had been planned and purposeful?
In its place could be something more pleasing. Imagine the space of a single street tree transformed into a small-scale woodland. The addition of native wildflowers, ferns and shrubs would keep it abuzz with wildlife to delight children and nurture a sense of place. If installed on every block throughout the city, these biomes would provide connective habitats for birds, bees and butterflies while engaging neighbors with slivers of wildness and each other.
Creating these biomes would build upon recently-passed legislation that supports local biodiversity, the first law of its kind in New York City. The City Council should be applauded for advancing these bills and advocating for the use of native plants in public landscapes. I had the privilege of providing public testimony and advising on the legislation. While its passage is an important first step, the Big Apple has more to do. Let's catch up to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Austin that prioritize nearby nature by preserving wilderness, providing easy access to it and weaving ecological elements into daily life. The latter is especially important for apartment dwellers who lack backyards like many of us in New York.
At a time when local government is counting every penny, such investments make fiscal sense. More nature can mean fewer social services with improved public health, reduction in crime and fewer emergency responses. Piggybacking on the city's existing PlaNYC Million Trees planting program, the extra work and costs would be negligible.
Small-scale forests would effectively amplify nature on city blocks by bringing parks to the people. In creating these connections, we could strengthen our immune systems while reinforcing ties with the natural world and within our communities.
In time and with more political will, I hope we see a greener and more inviting view outside all of our windows.