Defining scientific standards to mainstream Forest Therapy in Italy
Two of our Italian partners involved in the Green4C project, namely University of Padova (Department of Land, Environment, Agriculture and Forestry) and Istituto Superiore di Sanità (Center for Behavioral Sciences and Mental Health) are among the promoters of an innovative Memorandum of Understanding on Forest Therapy, related to the Italian context. The Memorandum is fully consistent with the Italian Forest Strategy approved by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forest Policy in February 2022, which mentions the promotion of forest health as one of the key socio-cultural services provided by forests.
The Memorandum of Understanding on Forest Therapy
The Memorandum was signed by several Italian high-level university institutes and research centres and other organisations, for a total of 12 partners. The process leading up to the signing of the agreement started a few years ago, in 2020, and took several months to reach everyone’s signature.
By adhering to this document, the parties committed to promote a new form of management and valorisation of national forests that is more focused on the promotion of human health, giving appropriate recognition to Forest Therapy. How? By developing “experimental protocols for the definition of a national scientific standard for the qualification of sites and paths that are candidates to host regular Forest Therapy experiences and practices, to the benefit of both public and private operators” ( Art.1 of the Memorandum, Finalità).
The road to the Memorandum
In the last two years, also as an effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, Forest Therapy – as well as Forest Bathing (Shinrin Yoku) -have become very widespread practices. However, often there is the risk that these practices are offered by poorly qualified people, especially in Forest Therapy, at the expense of the final beneficiaries. In the last few years, there has been an increase in studies demonstrating the positive effects on human health of “being in nature for a certain time”, such as reduced symptoms related to stress, anxiety, and depression, improved sleep quality, enhancement of certain functions such as attention and memory or, again, positive impacts on the immune, metabolic, neuroendocrine systems. However, at the same time, there is a lack of a clear scientific frame of reference, which takes into consideration all the various elements that come into play with regard to Forest Therapy; for example, the conditions of the subjects involved, the environmental conditions, the plant species present and many others. Hence the need to define science-based and shared Italian standards that can put a limit to the proliferation of unprofessional initiatives, not based on a rigorous approach. This, in fact, could jeopardise the spread of Forest Therapy as a preventive and/or therapeutic intervention for our health and also harm the people who decide to try this new therapy.
The protocol, in its introduction, explains that “to date, the causal links between, on the one hand, the ecological, biological, physic-chemical characteristics of the individual forest species and the forest as a whole, as well as the way in which the experiences are conducted, and, on the other hand, the physiological and psychological effects of immersion in forest environments, the relative dependence on the duration and frequency of the experiences, and the persistence of the effects over time, have yet to be fully explored”. Therefore, the parties – among the activities to be carried out – conducted a study to clarify which particular characteristics need to be present to classify a specific site, forest or woodland route as a suitable place for Forest Therapy. This will make it possible to have certified sites for Forest Therapy.
Terapia Forestale: a new book on Forest Therapy
In addition to this protocol, the first of its kind at the Italian level, the network of institutions created in developing the Memorandum is providing support to the publication of the multi-authors book “Terapia Forestale”, focusing on Forest Therapy in Italy. The publication was coordinated by the CNR – Istituto per la BioEconomia and CAI – Club Alpino Italiano and published by CNR edizioni.
This book investigates the scientific basis and fields of application of Forest Therapy. Many researchers from various organisations, universities, and research centres – several of which are already members of the aforementioned Memorandum – participated in the drafting process. Among the authors, we can cite Davide Pettenella (University of Padova), scientific coordinator of Green4C, Francesca Cirulli and Marta Borgi (Istituto Superiore di Sanità), and Ilaria Doimo (Etifor), all partners of Green4C.
An event to launch the book “Forest Therapy” and to present this Forest Therapy Italian network is also planned for 16 November 2022. The event will be held in Italian and it will be both in-presence and online. Learn more and register here.
Georgia Bertagna Libera (University of Padova)