The NHS Forest is an alliance of health sites working to transform their green space to realise its full potential for health, wellbeing and biodiversity, and to encourage engagement with nature. The project is run by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, an independent UK charity, as part of its Green Space for Health programme.
The NHS Forest started life as a tree planting project in 2009. Since then, around 300 healthcare sites across the UK have joined our alliance, and almost 100,000 trees have been planted on or near to their estates.1 But like all forests, the NHS Forest comprises far more than just trees. Our sites have established a wide range of green spaces on and around their land, which offer multiple benefits to the people and wildlife that inhabit and visit them.
The NHS has around 6,500 hectares of land in England alone,2 and healthcare sites can act as ‘anchor institutions’ in their communities, providing spaces for socialising and learning, recreation and exercise. Ensuring there is accessible green space can have wide reaching impacts.
Examples of NHS Forest green space include:
- Peaceful gardens offering patients and relatives a healing space at a critical time in their lives
- Woodlands, orchards and native wildflower meadows
- Productive growing space to provide fresh, organic herbs and vegetables for hospital kitchens, and horticultural skills for volunteers
- Nature-based play space for local children
- Outdoor rehabilitation and therapeutic activities (e.g. yoga and mindfulness)
- Art trails for outdoor reflection and recreation.
Why green NHS sites?
Green spaces are one of our most neglected health resources. A growing body of evidence points to the benefits of access to nature and green space for mental and physical health, including positive outcomes for heart rates and blood pressure,3 stress levels,4 mood and self-esteem,5 obesity,6 type 2 diabetes,7 post-operative recovery,8 birth weight,9 children’s cognitive development10 and cardiovascular disease.11 When people have more access to green space where they live, income-related health inequalities are less marked.12 In England alone, it has been calculated that the NHS could save an estimated £2.1 billion every year in treatment costs if everyone had access to good quality green space.13
A net zero NHS
The NHS aims to be the world’s first net zero national health service, eliminating its direct carbon footprint by 2040.14 The NHS Forest supports these efforts in multiple ways, beyond capturing carbon. Green spaces on healthcare sites speed up post-surgery recovery, reduce the need for painkillers and benefit the wellbeing of hospital staff. Green gyms and woodland walkways can promote sustainable forms of exercise, and composting facilities can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill. Fresh fruit and veg supplied by hospital allotments and orchards can reduce food miles, encourage healthy eating and result in a lower-carbon diet.
Please note that while tree planting is hugely important in the fight against climate change, we do not offer trees as a form of carbon offsetting. Read more about the reasons for this here.
The NHS Forest and biodiversity
The UK is in desperate need of more tree cover. The Woodland Trust’s 2021 report, State of the UK’s Woods and Trees, states that woodland covers just over 13% of the UK’s land area, but around half of this comprises non-native plantation trees. The NHS Forest supplies native species, which may be used to create woodlands, orchards and hedgerows – vital habitat for many of our at-risk wildlife species. Many NHS Forest sites have planted native, perennial wildflowers along borders or in meadows, to support pollinators and other insects; this in turn can see the return of wildlife such as bats and house martins.
Any NHS site, from hospitals to GP surgeries and ambulance stations, can join the NHS Forest network. It takes five minutes to register your site.
1 Including from other suppliers. The NHS Forest counts additional trees that have been planted on or near these sites, and not pre-existing, mature woodland, etc.
2 Health Foundation (2019) pictogram, available at https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/charts-and-infographics/the-nhs-as-an-anchor-institution
3 Pretty J, Barton J, Colbeck I, Hine R, Mourato S, MacKerron G and Wood C (2011) Health values from ecosystems. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Technical Report. UK National Ecosystem Assessemnt. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.
4 Ward Thompson C, Roe J, Aspinall P, Mitchell R, Clow A and Miller D (2012) More green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns. Landscape and Urban Planning, 105(3): 221-229.
5 Barton J and Pretty J (2010) What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science and Technology, 44(10): 3947-3955.
6 Lachowycz K and Jones A (2011) Greenspace and obesity: a systematic review of the evidence. Obesity Reviews, 12(5): 183-189.
7 Bodicoat D, O’Donovan G, Dalton A, Gray L, Yates T, Edwardson C, Hill S, Webb D, Khunti I, Davides M and Jones A (2014) The association between neighbourhood greenspace and type 2 diabetes in a large cross-sectional study. BMJ Open, 4(12).
8 Ulrich R (1984) View from a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224: 420-421.
9 Dadvand P, Sunyer J, Basagna X, Ballester F, Lertxundi A, Fernandez-Somoano A, Estarlich M, Garcia-Esteban R, Mendez M and Nieuwenhuijsen M (2012) Surrounding greenness and pregnancy outcomes in four Spanish birth cohorts. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120 (10): 1481-7.
10 Dadvand P, Nieuwenhuijsen M, Esnaola M, Forns J, Basagana X, Alvarez-Pedrerol M, Rivas I, Lopez-Vicente M, Pascual M, Su J, Jerrett M, Querol X and Sunyer, J (2015) Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. PNAS, 112(26) 7937-7942.
11 Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martinez D, Dadvand P, Forns J, Plasencia A and Nieuwenhuijsen M (2015) Mental health benefits of long-term exposure to residential green and blue spaces: a systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12: 4354-4379.
12 Mitchell R and Popham F (2008) Effects of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. Lancet, 372(9650): 1655-1660.
13 UK Government press release (2020) Investing in nature is an investment in the NHS, says Environment Agency Chief Executive