Forest Bathing: Markham’s new initiative
In the fall of 2018, the City of Markham completed construction of four Shinrin-yoku trails in local parks. Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, is a practice of forest therapy that has its roots in Japan. In Markham, a design team led by Marlise Eguchi worked closely with consultant Ben Porchuk of the Global Institute of Forest Therapy to design trails that connect people with natural environments. The project is the result of a partnership between the City of Markham’s Parks Renaissance Program, the Greenbelt Foundation, and Park People. While Markham’s Parks Renaissance Program funded more than 80 percent of the project, the remainder of the funding was provided by the Greenbelt River Connector Program (a collaborative grant offered by the Greenbelt Foundation and Park People).
The grant facilitated the establishment of a series of trails and the hosting of guided walks that promote the practice of Shinrin-yoku. The paths are along the Greenbelt- protected urban river valleys in the Rouge and Don watersheds in Markham. Located in four of the city’s oldest wards, the trails are designed to be easily accessible to all residents and open to people of all ages, abilities, and experience levels. Occasional guided walks are offered free of charge to the public. The four locations of the trails are Pomona Mills Park, Toogood Pond Park, Springdale Park and Valley, and Rouge Valley Park.
The Springdale Park and Valley trail is the first Global Institute of Forest Therapy– designated trail in Canada. The most important feature necessary to certify a site as a healing forest is the qualitative way in which it engages all five senses. Considerations include temperature, humidity, luminosity, radiant heat, air current, sounds, volatile organic compounds given off by tress, and physiological factors such as heat and cold, light and dark. In addition, the site must be of a unique contextual character. In the case of Springdale Park and Valley trail, the site has historical significance for local residents. It is the source of a stream that comes directly from the groundwater and that has long been rumoured to have healing properties. During guided forest bathing walks along this trail, participants are invited to take a dip in the water in order to awaken their senses, and to inhale the aroma of sap and to drink tea brewed with elements of the forest gathered along the walk.
I had the opportunity to participate in a Shinrin-yoku walk at the Springdale Park and Valley site, prior to the official launch of the trail, with the designers and with Ben Porchuck of the Global Institute of Forest Therapy. Marlise Eguchi noted that her team considered the existing usage of the site by local residents when deciding how to formalize the trail. During the walk, Springdale Park and Valley was notable in the way it is so far removed from its urban context.
Claims regarding the benefits of Shinrin-yoku lie somewhere between evidence- based hard science and an intuitive under- standing of the benefits of nature. The Markham design team worked with the idea that the health of the local watershed is directly linked to the health of the community, based on research indicating that spending time in nature has direct benefits for physiological and mental health, such as lower heart rates, blood pressure, and concentration of stress hormones.
The Markham forest therapy trails aim to provide visitors with the unique opportunity to explore the Greenbelt-protected river valleys and experience the positive physical and mental health impacts of connecting with nature. The trails include mulched pathways and interpretive signage and seating. The design features are meant to guide visitors through their own explorations. In addition, guided walks with the Global Institute of Forest Therapy, and natural heritage educational walks with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, are also offered within the four parks. The first series of free guided programs was held in the fall of 2018 and took participants on an immersive experience in the woods.
One of the goals of the program is to help communities organize to take stewardship of the site. While the initial funding helped to set up the inaugural walks, the plan is that ongoing programming will engage the Markham community in Shinrin-yoku in parks.
TEXT BY KANWAL AFTAB, A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD.