Kathleen Wolf

Exploring Urban Ecosystems and Social Science Research: A Conversation with Dr. Kathleen Wolf

Meet Dr. Kathleen Wolf, a dynamo in urban forestry studies at the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. With a knack for blending science and society, she’s not your typical researcher. Dr. Wolf dives deep into the jungle of human-nature connections, drawing from her roots as a landscape architect and environmental planner, studying with none other than Rachel and Stephen Kaplan.

Collaborating with the US Forest Service and advising the TKF Foundation’s NatureSacred program, she’s a trailblazer in exploring how cities and towns can benefit from nature. From her days studying under the Kaplans to pioneering research on urban forestry and social science, Dr. Wolf’s journey is a fascinating blend of academia and action, shaping policies that make cities greener and communities happier. In this interview, she unveils the secrets of her research, revealing the profound impact of nature on our urban lives.

“I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the Salish Sea, also known as the Puget Sound. And so all around me was this beautiful and bold, dramatic nature. And my family is an outdoors family. My father’s a hunter, a fisher, and we would go on outings with him. But I think what really connected to what I do now is in undergraduate school, I went to a liberal arts university, and there I dabbled in not only my major in biology, but a lot of other types of disciplines, anthropology, psychology, sociology, history. And so I started to develop this interest in sort of the nexus, the connections between nature and society or nature and culture. And I think that my early childhood experience has sort of launched me into the research program that I’ve been doing for decades now,.”

“I’ve always had this science brain. I got the girls scientist award in high school, and I majored in biology. But I have to say, I skipped labs. I was like, you know, lab work, not for me. And so after graduation, I moved to another part of the United States, and it’s some semi-tropical area, south Florida. And I started, I learned the local flora and became sort of an expert, an amateur expert. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, who are notable environmental psychologists here in the United States, they’re now retired. On a whim, I took classes with them. And it was like, this is it, this is it. Nature and culture.”

“So I went back to school, graduate school, thinking I would become a landscape architect. But while I was there, total serendipity. And landscape architects started contacting me to help them specify native plants as they were required for new developments. And it was like, oh, I like this. I’ve never been exposed to this landscape architecture, a blend of culture and nature”.

“With my interest in doing research, I pivoted fairly quickly. I finished the landscape architecture master’s degree, so I did a little bit of practice as a landscape architect, but pretty quickly moved into the research on people, environment, particularly outdoor environments.”

“There were people who traveled all over the world to spend time with the Kaplans or to enter their graduate program, and I just stumbled into it. They represent what I now think I’m interested in as a young person. Just coming out of grad school, with other Kaplan students we meet for coffee or beers and we talk about our research and research design and how we are doing analysis. And often we would end with, will we get jobs? Because this was so new in academia, almost hard to imagine now, but then it was so new. So I moved back to the Seattle area, got a position with the University of Washington.”

“The first grant that was pivotal to get the first grant from the US Forest Service, because without that support, I’m not sure I would have continued to develop this trajectory. The project was about nature in business districts, retail centers, and how shoppers and consumers respond. And the Forest Service continued to fund a program of that research for a while. Then there was another trajectory of trees and transportation.”

“Because it’s so many cities, it’s claimed by the engineering community that trees are associated with injury and death. And it’s not, it’s the drivers, not the trees. So let’s explore the value of trees in urban roadsides. While doing that work, I was invited to do talks. There was one national conference where I talked about this, talked a little bit about some emerging ideas about health response and a forest service.”

“A national position pulled me aside and said, can you do something to help people understand the nature and health connection? So they gave me a little bit of funding and I generated the website Green Cities Good Health. And that’s when it took off. All of a sudden, I became identified with nature and health, even though I hadn’t done the originating research. That propelled me then to continue that work and to be able to find funding. And as this field was growing, to find collaborators was also a difficulty early on, other than my Kaplanite colleagues who were other collaborators, and now there’s so many and they’re so smart and they’re so young and it’s great.”

“About the resistance we found back in the day it was that archaic thought, it was like a path you were starting. And how was that? It is the origins of urban forestry. So I’ve done work not only with trees, but nature more broadly. But with the early funding from the forest service, there was an encouragement to focus on trees. And so most of urban forestry early on, the principles and practices came from production forestry or silviculture.”

“And so my position with the University of Washington had been in a school of forestry. So here I was doing urban focused work at a time when cities were viewed as wasteland. It was the place where nature had been destroyed. ‘Don’t bother with that’. So I was interested in urban and social science, social science within forestry. So I had this double whammy. I was constantly defending the pursuit of this work with my colleagues within my own unit.”

“Urban forestry, trees, nature and health studies start to come out. And the initial response was fascinating. It was, ‘that’s not science’. And I explained it’s not about a topic. It’s a process. It’s a process of inquiry that’s systematic. I’m now part of a national nature and health affiliate group across the United States, and a third of our group are ecologists who want to get in on this. They want to introduce the benefits of biodiversity as another dimension of human health response. So it is fascinating to see how this has happened.”

“What I’m seeing of late is, all right, if we see these big correlations and we poke through one more level, how much dosage, how often can we prescribe this? So, therapeutic applications, what about life cycle? What about elders? What about children? What about adolescents? So I’m seeing now this finer grain of understanding, and it might be a big data approach, or it might be more of an intervention, sort of a clinical, experimental approach.”

“So what I’m seeing now is the translation to city policy. A public value is now this translation of research to on the ground tangible experiences that people might engage in in their everyday environments. But to have the clinical study results I think will launch it to another level as in acceptability, particularly in the medical and public health arena. Yes, we still need numbers in order to convince people besides the self reports.”

“I continue to monitor the nature and health research through various listservs, journal notifications and so on. And I maintain an article database that numbers in the thousands. I think it’s pushing about 8000 articles now that span from those Kaplan years. So we’re looking at about 50 years of research. So to see that trajectory is fascinating.”

“This is the range of experiences we might have in the city. It might be a small park, a large park, it might be a streetscape, it might be our own garden. It might be a plant arrangement that we have on the deck of our apartment or, you know, on the. In our flat. But what really is prominent now is mental health.”


Ph: Courtesy Kathleen Wolf

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