Nature as medicine is a cliché with a robust pedigree that you can trace back to our sun-worshipping, tree-venerating proto-ancestors millennia ago. The idea started going scientific in the early 1980s: that’s when Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson published his book Biophilia, on humanity’s innate affinity for nature; when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing; and when a researcher named Roger Ulrich noticed that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery at a Pennsylvania hospital were discharged nearly a day earlier, on average, if they had a view of trees outside their window. These days, the link between cumulative time spent in natural settings and health outcomes—including the big one, longevity—is solid. There’s data on cancer and heart disease, anxiety and depression, immune function and stress hormones, and more. “It’s not just one study,” points out Harvard epidemiologist Peter James, whose 2016 analysis of the 108,000-person Nurses’ Health Study found a 12 percent lower rate of nonaccidental mortality among those with the most greenery in a 250-meter radius around their home address. “It’s 500 studies.”
Of course, there’s a perennial gap between knowing and doing. Psychologist Laurie Santos and philosopher Tamar Szabó Gendler have dubbed it the G.I. Joe Fallacy, from the tagline of the PSAs that followed the 1980s cartoon: “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.” Most of us know, or at least intuit, that a walk in the park is restorative. But knowledge alone has not sent us flocking to the woods. In the 1990s, data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency suggested that Americans were spending less than 8 percent of their lives outdoors. There is little evidence that the situation has changed for the better in the past 30 years, despite that mounting pile of nature-is-medicine research. (It remains to be seen whether the pandemic-inspired park frenzy of both 2020 and 2021 heralds a lasting shift.)
That’s the conundrum that Jared Hanley, the data scientist and veteran adventure racer who organized the Three Sisters trip back in 2016, kept contemplating. “And I came to the conclusion that for things to matter, you have to measure them,” he recalls. “You just gotta slap a number on it. And once you start tracking it and ascribing value to it—however arbitrary it is, like Bitcoin for example—society starts focusing on it.” A 2019 study from Britain’s University of Exeter offered a handy benchmark: 120 minutes of nature per week, it found, was enough to measurably boost health and well-being. An Outside cover story around the same time, on “science’s newest miracle drug” (that would be nature), provided Hanley with the impetus to recruit his erstwhile tripmates Bailey and Minson, with their complementary skill sets, to the cause. Nature, Hanley decided, needed an app.
The three men incorporated NatureQuant in late 2019, with Hanley, a former investment banker, as CEO; startup veteran Bailey as chief technology officer; and Minson as chief science officer and their bridge to the world of academic research. Their tagline is “delivering technology to assess and promote nature exposure,” and their initial vision was an app that would keep track of how much time you spend in natural environments. The target audience was not necessarily people like themselves: not-quite-grizzled adventure-sports veterans in their forties and early fifties brought together by the vibrant outdoors scene around Bend and Eugene, where they live. “We’re all super into the outdoors and nature, and we really believe in the benefits,” says Bailey, a dedicated mountain biker, trail runner, and skier. “But I don’t think the average person realizes that benefit as much as they could.” An app that charts your progress toward a goal of 120 minutes a week, they figured, could serve as the equivalent of an activity tracker spurring you on to 10,000 steps, nudging you whenever you’re racking up too many indoor hours.
But they immediately ran into a practical problem. “To create that app,” Hanley says, “we very quickly realized that the only way it would work is if we know where all the nature is, and what part of nature is important for health.” To fill this gap, they began assembling a master database combining inputs from a huge range of sources: park databases, visual and infrared satellite imagery that picks up both greenery and water, aerial and street-view photography fed through image-recognition software, tree canopy, road density, noise pollution, light pollution, air pollution, water quality, and more. All this data is combined using a machine-learning algorithm, which then spits out the company’s signature NatureScore—a zero to 100 rating of a given natural setting’s beneficence, accurate to within ten meters.
The way a leafy promenade or a burbling brook tugs gently at our senses seems to restore our perennially depleted capacity to focus; it also lowers stress, boosts mood, and even enhances performance on cognitive tests.
At NatureQuant’s website, you can currently plug in any address in the United States and get a NatureScore, including a simplified rating of one to five leaves that splits the 100-point scale into quintiles. (The company is in the process of expanding coverage to Canada, with Europe to follow.) The vibe consciously evokes Walk Score, the walkability rating service acquired by real estate brokerage Redfin in 2014, which now delivers 20 million search results per day. And it fits into a larger constellation of “location intelligence” services that provide data to inform real estate decisions. “It’s a way of quantifying something that is normally very subjective, and of gathering together all these things you notice in person, like are there trees on this street?” says Sara Maffey of Local Logic, a Montreal-based company that scores addresses on 17 different traits and is in talks with NatureQuant about adding its data to the mix. It’s not just home buyers who are interested, Maffey points out: neighborhood greenness correlates with home value, so developers and investors want the data, too.
The ancillary uses of the NatureScore geographical database, even without a consumer-facing app that tracks individual movements or nature exposure, caught Hanley and his colleagues off guard. They soon realized that their algorithm could predict all sorts of things, like urban heat islands and county-level crime rates and even COVID cases—the latter a consequence, presumably, of better air quality associated with more trees, but also potentially linked to subtler effects such as people spending more time outdoors and getting more exercise in nature-rich neighborhoods. They began forging links with organizations like the Arbor Day Foundation, which promotes tree planting. When the foundation pitches cities on the need for more trees, it’s easy to quantify the positive effects on pollution and noise and stormwater, says Dan Lambe, the group’s president. But the broader health benefits have always been harder to measure. “What NatureQuant is doing is truly unique,” he says. “It could be a game changer for investment.”
They’ve also entered discussions with Davey, the country’s biggest arborist company, and with Citibank’s City Builder platform, which helps investors find high-impact community investment opportunities. These sorts of partnerships may eventually give NatureQuant a revenue stream from its data—the company is determined not to charge consumers for the app. At this point, it’s keeping its options open. “If we can partner with someone like Apple, and overnight get this on 50 million Apple Watches,” Hanley says, “that’s really going to have the biggest public impact.”