Guangyu Wang

UBC’s Guangyu Wang: The science of Forest Therapy, the whys and hows of the healing power of nature

Guangyu Wang was born in Southeast China. Is now Associate Dean and Professor of the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, Director of the UBC’s Multidisciplinary Institute of Natural Therapy (MINT), and Director National Park Research Centre. 

After a childhood in the subtropical countryside among wild and domestic animals, he studied Forestry, traveled to the US for an MBA, was the Superintendent of a the Fuzhou National Park he put at the top of National Parks in China, was the CEO of a Forestry company, and as the best university in that field, he decided to study his PhD in the University of British Columbia. To his surprise, they asked him to stay in the team. 

He moved with his family to Canada, takes special care of his students (“Go to the forest, everything will come up there”, he says), and runs groundbreaking research on what he believes is the direction in which Forest Therapy must be headed: science. Meet the man who introduced Forest Therapy into China and who is determined to unveil the mechanisms by which Forest Therapy operates in people. 

How it started

“I come from the countryside, I grew up in a multi forest area, in cultivated fields, playing with monkeys and so many different wild animals, quite near nature. 40 years ago we didn’t have much connection with the outside world, before the urbanization policy, so I graduated from highschool and went directly to the University to study Forestry. I thought that could help my hometown. The tree farm we had in my family was quite nice to live in.

“At that time China had just opened up, there were a lot of opportunities in the provincial government and I got a place as a forester and managed the Fuzhou National Park, as a Park Manager for almost 6 years, then as Superintendent. 

“I learnt much from park management from the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia. I took the knowledge back to redesign everything at the national park. People’s living conditions were getting higher in China so now we had from 1 to 2 free days a week, so a lot of people went to the parks. We created recreational activities such as botanic theme parks, forestry museum, recreation center with accommodations and healthcare facilities, a kind of forest therapy at that time we called nature connection, and others ».

“At that time I realized there were 2 kinds of people: one type who were very depressed, from a city of 6 million people, that came to nature to relax. And the other people, kids or university students who went there for adventure, to release their energy, to restore their mental health during intensive study. In China the only way you can get a better life is going to university, so it’s so competitive. I decided to establish two different offers in the park: relaxation and adventure. And I found that nature can really heal people. 

The Park became the top national park of China. I was proud of that achievement. And then I was sent to the US to study for an MBA. I got a scholarship for Forestry and Recreation, and Landscape Planning. Studied my masters and went back to China to work as a forestry company CEO”. 

How it’s going

“When I was studying in the US I realized the top Forestry University in the world was the University of British Columbia, and back in China I decided to do my PhD there. At that time the province I worked with had this massive flood of the great Min River that cost a lot of lives and I decided to study Forestry and Watershed management. 

“When I finished my studies at the UBC they asked me to stay with the team. They said ‘you are an exceptional person, we’d like you to stay here’, it was nice and I established my family here. I had a son and a daughter, and I have been here since 2008, as a Director, Assistant Dean, and then Associate Dean.

“I don’t miss China as I have many connections and much of my research is focused on the Asia Pacific region, particularly I was the main person to introduce and develop Forest Therapy into China and I work with different associations. 

“In this Covid 19 context our research got to another stage. We published a paper in 2020, while we saw people only got outside to the forest, the national parks, the urban parks. We demonstrated how green spaces can release the pressure and can help people, really help people’s mental health. 

“In 2021 we organized forest therapy walks, with 2-meters social distance walking in the forest with the mask, we practiced it almost every week to help the local community. We invited a lot of experts to give open lectures to talk about green spaces, forest therapy… It’s also helped our lab to be quite popular in a sense we got invitations from the US Forestry Service, even Mexico, Korea and China asked us to help them organize forest therapy activities”. 

The healing power of the forest

“As an Associate Dean working with students I saw in the last 10 years a lot of Asian students find it really difficult to adapt to western education and culture, particularly in the first year. They come in September and there are very long nights, rainy weather, and that affects them. Before the Thanksgiving break they have the final exam and they get very nervous and some, depressed. 

“Every year we had some students having depression and I started to ask myself how to help them. Outside UBC we have a forest, a very nice park. I helped them to go outside the forest, go running in the forest, and do activities. And some students said ‘running is not helping but sitting in the forest, meditating, deep thinking helped a lot’. And I said ‘this is Forest Therapy’. That’s why I started to change my research towards the forest therapy area to help our students, and also for the local people.

“A lot of families from Asia moved here and we helped these communities through forest therapy to create relationships and bonds. That research is quite good as well. It is about teaching them the relationship with nature, the relationship with people and with their families. It’s a very successful program”.

Forest Therapy moves this way

“During the I Global Summit (Science, Nature and Health), though Forest Therapy is not new in Asian countries nor for indigenous people here,  I will talk about how specifically Forest Therapy functions in people’s brain, in people’s psychology and physiology. We still don’t know. So we use a lot of statistical analysis, because it is difficult to explain the mechanisms.

“We are focused on the senses and how each sense has multiple layers and combinations, we are working on pairs to analyze this and creating an indoor forest environment to do the comparisons. We are working with medical doctors on what exactly can help people, which are the things that work. 

“I’m not criticizing other organizations about them saying ‘oh, we are a spiritual thing’, but we need to know scientifically why it works. I like this about FTHub, that we work together with this vision of what is the science behind Forest Therapy. We can’t always be on a spiritual level. And I am a scientist. This is why I like working with Forest Therapy Hub. We need to go in that direction. 

“Nature is good. And Forest Therapy should be based on science. Nature has all the potential to help in many different ways, not only mental health or physical health. I say to my students ‘go to the forest, go relax, everything will come up there’”.

Ph: Courtesy Dr Guangyu Wang

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