Topic: Article
Posted on 20th May 2024

From Hay Fever to Hunger

How Social Value is Intrinsically Linked with Nature and Our Environment

Spring has officially sprung. But the welcome return of warmer weather brings discomfort for many of us. More people than ever report suffering from seasonal allergies – could considerate urban planting be one way to mitigate the effects?

What are the Wider Effects of Hay Fever? And What is the Social Impact?

Runny noses, itchy eyes, brain fog- hay fever symptoms now affect millions of us each year. Add to those the interference with concentration and drowsiness caused by hay fever remedies and it makes for a miserable time. The increasing rates of asthma and eczema have also been linked to allergic rhinitis, so it’s not just a seasonal inconvenience. The number of adult patients admitted to hospital because of allergies has more than doubled since 2013, reaching a record high of 27,172 in 2019/2020. (Source: Anaphylaxis UK)

In fact, more than 50% of school children in the UK now report experiencing symptoms, and 26% of adults are diagnosed sufferers. Beyond the immediate discomfort, the effects can be felt in all areas of life. Sleep is negatively impacted, and daytime function is compromised, with two-thirds of those affected reporting detrimental effects on their ability to drive. AllergyUK reports that 44% of adults said their condition had detrimentally affected their performance at work, and hay fever accounted for 16.7 million GP appointments annually. The cost to industry is considerable, but the human cost is perhaps even greater. 53% of people living with allergies reported regularly avoiding social situations due to their allergy. 2 in 5 (40%) parents of children with allergies reported their child had experienced bullying due to their condition.

Little wonder then, that current research is showing an association between hay fever and mood disorders. And it goes deeper than the immediately apparent psychological impact. Studies indicate that the inflammatory response produced by allergens in the body triggers the release of cytokines. These proteins- normally sent to fight infections- activate areas of the brain linked to the regulation of depression and anxiety.

How Can Considerate Landscape Planting Help?

In 2015, horticulturist Thomas Ogren suggested that ‘botanical sexism’ could be to blame for the increase in hay fever. City planners, he claimed, had been predominantly planting male trees to reduce mess produced by fruiting specimens. With no female trees to collect and use the pollen to grow fruit, these trees were creating clouds of it that just hung in the city air.

Couple this situation with longer pollination seasons due to global warming, and little wonder more people than ever before are symptomatic. Air pollution’s interaction with pollen grains, causing them to increase their allergenic potential and disperse into even finer particles, is only serving to exacerbate the situation further.

A conversation with Georgina Baines, director at urban and rural place design practice, highlighted the importance of a balanced approach to creating habitats for people and planet. From Georgina’s perspective, fruit or seedpods are often a tree’s most attractive feature, displaying particularly forms and different colours. They indicate the changing season, and are a rich food-source for insects, birds, and mammals. Georgina told us that the prevalence of male trees is less apparent in the UK. “Many of the UK’s native trees, including trees like oak, birch, beech and hazel, have male and female flowers on the same tree. Native species having either male or female individuals, are far fewer in number, but include Black, Grey and White Poplars, Yew and Holly. For these, a mix of plants bearing male and female reproductive organs is beneficial”.

Planting trees, shrubs, and flowers that rely on insect pollination, usually those with bright, beautiful flowers, could also help. These plants wouldn’t just be lessening the amount of pollen being released into the air. By supporting insect life, these plants help foster a biodiverse ecosystem, and their pretty blooms lift the spirits of many a passer-by.

City Planning to Combat Food Injustice and Social Inequality

As well as landscape architects ensuring a mix of male and female trees and plants are grown, there are initiatives focused on the planting of public trees for the greater good. In Philadelphia, Garrison Hines is helping communities use fruiting trees to combat food poverty and adapt to climate change. Having planted his own orchard on an empty plot there in 2021, he has witnessed the community benefits of food-bearing trees.

These range from providing food security to those in need to mitigating the heat-island effects of climate change on city neighbourhoods. That’s to say nothing about the beautifying effects of fruiting trees and wildlife on a concrete jungle. Issues like food poverty and the worst effects of climate change disproportionately affect low-income neighbourhoods. Tackling these social inequalities through the planting of public orchards is a route that more town planners might do well to consider!

Landscape gardening is by no means the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about community planning for increased social equity. But the impact of the natural world can’t be underestimated. With proper consideration and forethought, it’s possible to work with Mother Nature to benefit the public, rather than suffering at her hands.

Crafted in Liverpool by Kaleidoscope