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Connections Between Trees and Human Health

Jim Bissell measures the trunk of a Black Oak in Forest Hill Park (photo: Kay Colby/ideastream)

Cleveland was once known as the “Forest City.” But according to the U.S. Forest Service, urban tree cover is declining and scientists are now documenting how the loss of trees affects our health. This week ideastream begins a new series called “Healthy People, Healthy Places: Tracking the Trees.” Kay Colby kicks it off with a look at the history of trees in Northeast Ohio and the impact of their loss.


Wendy Wasman is the librarian and archivist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

“I’m going to open the archives of the Moses Cleaveland Trees.”

She’s retrieving the records of a Museum naturalist who in 1946 decided to do a tree census. She explains it was part of a tree census conducted by Arthur B. Williams.

 “He decided he wanted to find trees still living when Moses Cleaveland first set eyes on the Cuyahoga River in 1796.”  Wassman adds, “He had in mind to find 150 trees in honor of the 150 th anniversary of that time.”

She pulls out a twelve page report. “This is the final report that Arthur B. Williams submitted. And this is where he lists all the geographical distribution of all trees listed. So in Forest Hills Park there were 13 in the East Cleveland side and four on the Cleveland Heights side.”

Fast forward … 70 years. We join the Museum’s curator of botany, Jim Bissell in hopes of finding some of those13 Moses Cleaveland trees in East Cleveland.  He thinks he find one and pulls out a measuring stick. It’s a striking Black Oak that Bissell says was much smaller in 1946.

“It was 33 inches then and it’s now 63.4 inches in diameter,” Bissell comments. “That’s it very healthy and, hopefully, going to be here another 50 to a 100 years.”

But longevity has not been the case for many urban trees. While advocacy organizations set a benchmark for healthy urban tree canopy at 40 percent, Cleveland’s canopy now stands at just 19. Alan Siewert is with the State Division of Forestry.

 “And we’ve had an explosion of studies by social psychologists and health professionals looking at the effects of the urban forest and they are producing some very interesting data,” Siewert says.

For example, a 2013 study by one U.S. Forest Service scientist found that the loss of Ash trees in 15 states including Ohio was associated with an additional 6,000 deaths related to lower respiratory illness and 15,000 cardiovascular -related deaths. While experts caution “association” does not mean “causation” … lack of tree cover has been cited around health issues as well.  

Colby Sattler, an arborist with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, says “locally-gathered” data shows Cleveland neighborhoods with the fewest trees also have the highest rates of asthma – a condition aggravated by air pollution.

 “What they’re amazing at is filtering the air and cutting down on the dust. If you go to an area without trees it’s hot, it’s dusty and areas with high tree canopy it’s just the opposite.It’s not just that they’re giving off oxygen. They’re also purifying the air,” Sattler adds.

Alan Siewert says humans have always been creatures of the forest.

“And we see it in every thread of our life that the forest and green environment make us much healthier. And when we lose them we see the troubles in our inner city compounding and becoming worse.”

In an effort to get back the “green” … a coalition of advocates developed the Cleveland Tree Plan in 2015.  It was adopted by the City Planning Commission earlier this year. It aims to plant new trees and maintain the old. Meanwhile, some local arborists are set to update the census of the original Moses Cleaveland trees. When they get to Forest Hill Park … maybe they’ll find a compliment to that thriving Black Oak.


This story, as well as a collection of multiple media presentations slated for the next two months, are part of the Be Well series Healthy People, Healthy Places … exploring the intersection of people, place, and health. You can access all the reports here.

kay.colby@ideastream.org | 216-916-6410