Blame for Louisville’s high incidence of heart disease has long been attributed to a population that has unhealthy eating habits, a high rate of smoking, and an overall lack of exercise. In some circles, the city’s reputation has earned it an unwelcome nickname — Coronary Valley.
But a new idea called “The Green Heart Program” seeks to determine if the simple presence of trees and more green spaces can improve overall health and lower the region’s rate of heart disease.
“We are testing the idea that if you increase green spaces in an urban community, you will see improvements in health,” said Dr. Aruni Bhatnager, a University of Louisville professor of medicine who is leading the study.
Dr. Bhatnager said the study will enroll 700 people living in south Louisville neighborhoods and measure their risk for heart disease. The project will then plant nearly 10,000 large mature trees in those areas, then go back later to see if the presence of green affects the health of the community.
Some studies have suggested that people who live in greener areas have a lower rate of heart disease, Dr. Bhatnager said.
“For one, they provide cool spots, opportunities for people to interact with nature,” he said. “They increase the biodiversity of an area. They encourage people to be outside, spend time outdoors, and we think that they are very helpful in reducing mental stress and increasing your physical health.”
Creating a ‘greenprint’
The $5 million study is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and The Nature Conservancy, in hopes that the results can be used to create a “greenprint” for urban greenness strategies around the world.
“The urban environment is very taxing and demanding,” Dr. Bhatnager said. “It brings together a large group of people and constrains them in small artificial spaces, divorcing them from nature. To have green spaces in between urban areas offers a respite from the general surroundings and the concrete jungle that we live in.”
The results could impact future growth strategies for Louisville and all around the country, because cities could increase requirements for sufficient green spaces in new neighborhoods.
Dr. Bhatnager said there are economic benefits that go beyond boosting the health of residents. He said the presence of healthy trees increases the likability of neighborhoods, raises property values, and can reduce the cost of heating and cooling.
The study will also help determine the impact of air pollution on human health, given that the presence of trees helps reduce pollution.
Dr. Bhatnager has been studying the connection between heart health and the environment since the late 1990s. He believes the study will help prove the connection between cardiovascular health and air pollution. Part of that is for people in cities to simply spend more time outside in green places.
“People outside do physically and mentally much better than people trapped in urban environments,” he said.
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