Does being around trees make you less stressed? A recent study claims it does and, for many of us, green spaces undoubtedly confer a sense of peace and a place to sit and relax. Do trees confer benefits that can be measured? Economists want to do this since they want to weigh up the pros and cons of planting trees in urban areas (versus, presumably, loss of space and the cost of maintaining them) and there are a variety of formal routes to do this. (As an aside, I am not sure exactly what these calculations factor in – trees’ ability to take up greenhouse gases; reduce pollution and hence reduce hospital admissions for asthma; in hot countries reducing air conditioning bills….- any or all of those may be taken into account although I’m not convinced they are.) The sums accredited to trees are large. Close to where I used to live there was a long-running legal battle about chopping down some beautiful plane trees that were, correctly or not, identified as culprits in local residential housing subsidence. The battle was only partially won (the trees were lopped rather than felled) but during the battle the local Councillor produced a statement with the request that
‘The Council should undertake a full assessment of the CAVAT values equating to £345,000 – £420,000 for the three trees (plus uncalculated collective amenity value).’
(CAVAT is one of the formal ways to do the sums.)
Economists like to measure everything, it seems to me, even if a measurement as fundamental as GDP can be endlessly argued about with the result the numbers are remarkably uncertain . I am not infrequently left wondering how useful any of their numbers may be; at the very least the error bars are huge. Nevertheless, despite our groans it isn’t just the HE sector that has to be quantified by governments, so do our open spaces. But, to come back to my opening sentences, how does one evaluate the benefit of mental well-being per tree? Although I have read a variety of articles on this recently, the prompt for this post actually comes from moving office (in my department, finally, after being threatened with it three years ago) and reflecting on the new view I have from it, which includes some young trees. And also from showing a friend round my home in the Master’s Lodge recently and observiing her delight in the setting. I realise just how much I have benefited in a completely incalculable way from the view (see the picture) that my office in the Lodge now offers. It is fantastic, peaceful, green, lush and ever-changing. I am far more likely to work in my home office now than I ever was when I lived elsewhere with a Velux window as the only window in the loft conversion that was my ‘home office’, accordingly with no view whatsoever from my desk.
I know it. I am spoiled. But that brings me to the much more serious point about widening participation and equal opportunities for all our children. Virginia Woolf stressed the challenges for women writing when, like Jane Austen they had to hide their writing whenever visitors turned up; the mathematician Mary Somerville had the same problems. In A Room of her Own Woolf spelled out the long history of the impossibility of a woman being able boldly to hide herself away to think and write. Few women – perhaps Emilie de Chatelet in her mansion, maybe George Elliot who was ‘professionally’ a writer and anyhow so far beyond the social pale in her living arrangements perhaps a little ink on her fingers didn’t matter – could indulge themselves.
It applies also to schoolchildren who have no private space where they can go to think without interruption. As a teenager I remember visiting a friend’s family who lived in Council housing and everything and everyone was crammed into a tiny space. How my friend managed to find peace enough to complete her work to get her to university I cannot imagine (no noise-correcting headphones then to drown out the shrill noises of a large family), but she did succeed in being the first of her family to do so.
Children who have no quiet space to work indoors, and increasingly no public libraries to escape to either, will be put at huge disadvantage when it comes to getting through their exams with flying colours whatever their inherent intellectual abilities. And children who are brought up in concrete jungles, the sorts of housing estates that were mistakenly built in the ‘60’s and are frequently being torn down now, and who lack the peace brought by trees, by lawns or streams, will also suffer. Children’s mental health is very visibly suffering from many of the challenges of modern life, as the sacking of Natasha Devon for speaking out on the issue this week brings into sharp focus.
This intangible benefit is something that having moved from one perfectly civilised space to another even better one really has brought home to me. I don’t need an economist to evaluate the value per square metre of the lawn outside my window, or the precise – or even imprecise – value of the stunning dawn sequoia I can admire every time I look up from my desk. (This impressive tree, centre stage in my photo, was probably the first in the UK, given I think to the first Master Sir John Cockcroft as a gift for the College brought back from the Himalayas.) I don’t need an economist because I can feel it in my very being and am deeply grateful.
However, as we in the College work on widening participation, we can go into schools, we can attempt to raise aspirations from an early age, we can inform, demystify Oxbridge and the college system and do all we can to encourage students from the broadest range of backgrounds to apply. But we cannot overcome social disadvantage brought about by bad housing estates or unemployment and lack of cash. The Government loves to berate Oxbridge for doing insufficient on the widening participation front, but doesn’t want to face up to generations of lost opportunities and dwindling social support. We all must continue to fight, wherever we live, for trees, for libraries, for better housing estates as well as simply raising aspirations. With austerity as the Government’s watchword this is more important than ever.