Conserving Open Space Promotes Community Connection and Health

by Sally Stockwell, GrowSmart Maine board member

The first warm (over 40 degrees) spring night in April, I don raincoat, rain pants and a warm wool hat, and head out onto the dark wet road outside my door to help wood frogs, peepers, and spotted salamanders safely cross the road that runs between the Rines Forest and Frog Pond.  I have been doing this for nearly 30 years.  At first, I did it alone.  Then with my young children.  But lately, I’ve been blessed with the help of the local police force and about 50 kids, parents, and adults who have been called out at the spur of the moment by the local land trust.  They all want to help these seldom-seen marvels move from their wintering grounds to their breeding pool without getting squished by cars. They use flashlights to find the critters, and wet hands or Frisbees to scoop them up and transfer them to safety.  The police barricade the road during the mass migration to stop all traffic while the kids are in the road.  Sometimes the cops even come out of their cars and help move the salamanders too.

As a trained wildlife biologist, I never tire of witnessing this magical migration, but these days I get even more excited at seeing all those kids and adults carefully mill about in the cold wet dark night, full of smiles and exclamations of delight and wonder waltzing across their faces.  Why? Because kids and adults don’t spend nearly as much time outside as they once did, and recent research demonstrates how important that time is to our physical, mental, and spiritual health and well-being.

Spending time in nature, especially when surrounded by trees and greenery, has been shown to decrease blood pressure, heart rates, stress levels, depression, and even treat post-traumatic stress disorders in some people, and increase a sense of connection between people and the natural world. The results can be so profound, nations such as Japan and Korea have established “forest bathing” sites where busy, stressed people from the city can go to relax and recharge, and the island nation of Singapore has built “green walls” on their tallest skyscrapers to help reduce medical expenses.

In Maine, we are fortunate to have many natural landscapes embedded in our communities, where people can hunt and fish, birdwatch, recreate, or just go for a walk to breathe in the wonderful pine and decaying log scents. We also have an unusual tradition of private landowners allowing public access to their lands unless otherwise posted.  But we should not take those treasures for granted. 

That’s why at GrowSmart Maine we encourage every community to not only think about how to improve their downtowns and village centers, but also to think about how to ensure that 50 or 100 years from now, those small neighborhood parks and larger community farms and forests that we all treasure will still be around.  We need these places for clean water, clean air, fresh food, and wildlife habitat, and we need them for our own mental, physical and spiritual health.  One of my elder neighbors who is thinking about how to protect the legacy of her family’s farmland and woodlot recently said, “kids need to get outside – they need a forest to explore and play in!”  Just like the kids and their parents who set out in the dark rainy night to find frogs, we all need places where our senses are sharpened, we find wonder in our surroundings, and we learn to take care of the world around us. Lest we find ourselves sometime in the future having to resort to forest bathing sites and green walls, let’s take stock of what’s around us now, and conserve our green spaces and rural landscapes for the future –  by collaborating with town officials and fellow community members to develop open space plans, identify the best places for growth, and adopt land use ordinances that encourage smart growth, and by partnering with the local land trust to permanently protect local gems.  You can find more information about how to get involved in your town with our educational briefs.