Higher levels of tree canopy are linked to higher school-level reading test scores

Hodson, C. B., & Sander, H. A. (2017). Green urban landscapes and school-level academic performance. Landscape And Urban Planning, 160, 16-27. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2016.11.011

This study explored relationships between urban nature and school-level academic performance. Tree cover, vegetated land covers, water, as well as impervious surfaces were some of the environmental variables considered in determining extent of urban nature on and around school campuses. School attendance areas (SAA) -- rather than buffers around the school itself – were used to approximate the exposure to nature students attending a particular school might experience on a daily basis.

This study was conducted in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area (TCMA) of Minnesota with 222 schools participating. The population of the TCMA is socioeconomically and demographically diverse. Approximately 10% of the population live below the poverty line. The TCMA includes a wide variety of land uses and land covers, ranging from vegetated areas like forests and farmlands to intensely-developed areas for commerce, industry, and high-density housing. These demographics and land use characteristics make the TCMA similar to many other large U.S. metropolitan areas. Only schools with SAA that exceeded 50% urban land were included in the study. For each of these schools, the researchers calculated a series of variables known to or thought to influence academic success. They then quantified the academic performance of each school using third grade reading and math test scores from the 2011 Minnesota Comprehensive Exam.

After accounting for school socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, an analysis of the data indicated that schools with higher levels of tree canopy were linked to higher reading test scores. Contrary to expectations, the authors found a positive relationship between impervious surfaces (greater urbanicity) and reading scores, while associations between two markers of greenness - grass and shrub cover and water bodies - and both mathematics and reading academic success were non-significant.  The significant and positive link between one marker of urban greenness and reading performance found in this study, however, lends support to initiatives aimed at increasing tree cover in student environments as a way to improve academic success.

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