Dr. Kathleen Wolf is a Research Social Scientist at the College of the Environment, University of Washington, and is affiliated with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. Dr. Wolf’s research explores the human dimensions of urban ecosystems, and her mission is to discover, understand and communicate human behavior and benefits, as people experience nature in cities and towns. Moreover, Dr. Wolf is interested in how scientific information can be integrated into local government policy and planning.

Dr. Kathleen Wolf
Dr. Kathleen Wolf. Credit: Mary Levin, U of Washington

Proudest accomplishments: It may sound odd, but I am very proud that I am still doing science! When I completed a Ph.D. with an emphasis in environmental psychology, there was skepticism on the part of some friends, family and colleagues in other scientific disciplines about the role of social science in natural resources. Early on, I actually had to fend off disparaging comments from colleagues in the biophysical sciences. I now feel fortunate that I’ve been able to continue doing research and publishing. I have appreciated the key individuals in the U.S. Forest Service over the years who have recognized the value of studying the human dimensions of urban ecosystems. My second source of professional pride is the frequent positive feedback that I get for my efforts at research outreach and science delivery. While translating one’s science to community-based products is generally not recognized within academia, I have had many professionals and managers tell me that the effort has made a difference in their communities.

Why did you choose to become a Research Social Scientist?

Looking back, it really wasn’t a choice as much as an evolution. I started with a biology degree, and my first job was doing mangrove restoration in Florida. As I continued to learn about the natural world, there was always this nagging question: But what about people? When doing plant selection as a consultant for landscape architects in south Florida, I came to understand that design blends the biophysical and social. So, I went back to graduate school thinking I’d come out as a landscape architect. Without any awareness that the Kaplans, pioneering environmental psychologists, were working at the University of Michigan, I enrolled in their classes. I was hooked!

What is your favorite aspect or favorite part of your field?

I am of primarily German descent. After visiting the country several times, I realized that my enjoyment of rational thought and precision (as expressed in research methods and data analysis) is probably culturally hard-wired. I enjoy that moment of clarity when one knows that a research design is solid, or when reviewing statistical output. Also, social science studies about urban topics are totally dependent on partnerships to be successful. There is just no way that I can set up a sampling plot, or contact a study group in isolation (like some of my colleagues that study wildlands). I really enjoy the networking and partnership building that goes with social science, from setting up the research study to collaborating on how to best share results to encourage community change. So, I say thanks to all who read this who may have been a collaborator in my studies, or the studies of colleagues. The social connections are essential!

What is the most surprising thing that you have learned or discovered?

I wouldn’t say surprising, I’d say satisfying. When I started this work,there really wasn’t much capacity. Little funding was available for studies of social aspects, urban settings and human interactions with nature. That has changed dramatically, particularly in the last decade. I have really appreciated the ongoing support of the U.S. Forest Service for urban forestry and urban natural resources stewardship. More funding is now available across several agencies. Some of the best young scientists are attracted to the research of socio-ecological systems, particularly to questions about human health and wellness. Really innovative methods and measures are being developed. It is very satisfying, and even a bit surprising, to see how far the field has come along.

What was the most difficult moment or encounter that you’ve experienced in pursuit of your work?

The greatest challenge that I face is the popularity of my work. Really. Let me explain. Generally, urban foresters and arborists are very good at harvesting science facts to promote more tree planting and better management. On the supply side, my work phasing is: develop a research idea, receive funding to do the work and find an interesting result (hopefully!), finish the research and prepare products to include a technical report or journal article. In my case I am also committed to providing science delivery products, such as professional articles, briefings and web content. So, here is the challenge — the shelf life of the research extends long beyond the time that project funding ends. So, requests for science delivery articles, presentations and interviews continue, and, with multiple studies, time management also becomes a challenge. In June of this year, I was invited to present in England and Scotland at professional events, and the sponsors asked that I speak about research that I finished a decade ago. Not surprisingly, I accepted the invitations. So, maybe this is a good problem to have!

Do you have a favorite story from your years in the field?

It is actually a series of stories, mostly having happy endings. Young people who are thinking about becoming urban systems scientists often call or email me, asking for advice and to hear the story of how one works in the field. At times, while at conferences, I’ve had colleagues introduce their graduate students, and again I’m asked to affirm that their interests are an important scientific contribution. I’ve supported and mentored a number of students at the University of Washington and am often impressed with the work they do after graduation and in their careers. But, some of the one-time calls and chats are really satisfying, when several years later, I notice that person’s work has been published. Many important things have to align to complete a Ph.D., but being a messenger of encouragement early in the process has been satisfying.

What challenges do we face in reaching a healthier future in which people interact more frequently with green spaces?

Generally, the research about city trees and green spaces, and their relationship to human health and well-being, started with kind of random studies, in terms of who and what was studied. With support from the U.S. Forest Service, my students and I have summarized the body of research in the Green Cities: Good Health website. Across a diverse science community, we now have enough evidence to begin to understand the full implications of nearby nature benefits, and we’re beginning to understand causal mechanisms, even nature dosage.

The challenge then is twofold. First, how do we move to providing nature in a comprehensive, systematic way across cities? This need is bigger than the way that cities manage nature presently; the elements of metro nature — trees, parks, gardens, green infrastructure, etc. — are typically created and managed by different people or agencies within a local government. Cities need to unify the efforts so that they are place-based and distribution of nature amenities occurs in a strategic way. We need to co-design for co-benefits of air quality, stormwater management, health and other ecosystem services. Second, recent studies show the uneven distribution of nearby nature within many cities. Often people who live in less affluent neighborhoods have less access to metro nature. Nearby nature is not just nice to have, but is essential for wellness and quality of life. So, urban greening strategies must include environmental equality strategies to assure that all in the city experience nature’s benefits.

Where was the most interesting, most intriguing, most impactful or favorite place you were able to travel to in the name of science and why?

I have done two sabbaticals in Japan, at ALPHA (Awaji Landscape Planning and Horticulture Academy), located near Kobe. Each time, I taught a graduate course in urban landscapes sustainability and toured extensively in central Japan. I had many intriguing and impactful experiences, but I’ll share two here.

First, a primary responsibility at ALPHA was to help the students learn professional English. I came to understand that they could read English fairly well, but their verbal abilities ranged from nearly nothing to high fluency. And, my Japanese is at about toddler level — adequate to get food, drink and find toilets. So, I learned, by necessity, how to distill complex ideas that can take paragraphs, pages and long lectures to explain to their very essence and to communicate with keywords. I think that experience has made me a better speaker and writer.

Then, one of the most memorable days of my career happened in Japan. One day the ALPHA grounds manager came to my office and invited me to join his staff on a tour of Kyoto’s gardens. So, the following week I joined a full-day Japanese bus tour, complete with udon noodle lunch. We did a horticultural behind-the-scenes tour of some of the most famous gardens in the world. I observed, asked questions clumsily and sensed from the mime efforts of my hosts a treasure of fascinating insights about landscape design, cultural horticulture, how gardens are sustained for centuries and unique understandings about Japanese society.

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?

Hmm, I really couldn’t think of any fictional scientists. So, I chose a historical figure who I really admire, Darwin. Scientific results are often portrayed as a straightforward, linear path — hypothesis, data collection and analysis, results. Darwin’s biographers, and his own words, chronicle the excruciating experiences that inform the scientific process — hunches, careful pre-study observation or idea rumination and due consideration of alternative causes of a phenomenon. Hypothesis testing is important to science, but most journal articles don’t acknowledge the value of dedicated, disciplined observation that often precedes the actual study. Darwin carefully noted his observations, agonized over their meaning, discussed insights with friends and detractors, then launched ideas that were both controversial and paradigm-changing.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

I tried hard to shake off being a scientist to answer this question, but just couldn’t. Rather, I thought about other ways that I might apply science in urban systems. I bike commute throughout the year, and with some summer bike tours thrown in, I tally about 3,000 miles a year. If I were to shift gears in my science work, I think that I’d like to study the motivations and constraints of cycling adoption by individuals and cities. I realize that cycling is down-right dangerous in some cities — I have tried to ride in some of those places. I’d like to use science to understand and promote a transportation solution that offers so many benefits — reduced infrastructure costs, community building and physical and mental health for riders.

Where is your favorite spot to experience nature and why?

At this point in my career, I travel a lot and look for places of nature respite wherever available. Sometimes, I come upon very old, large trees. I’m kind of a tree whisperer — I stop and talk or think about what that tree might have seen in its lifetime — changing surroundings, children grown, increase in paving. I particularly enjoy really old gnarly trees — they are exquisite experiences. One feels drawn in to touch them, or to move into the hollow of their trunk. I realize that arboriculture best practices reduce maintenance costs and liability for tree-related injury, but the well-tended tree doesn’t develop personality. There is less and less opportunity for people in the U.S. to experience distinctive, memorable trees in their everyday life. A large gnarly tree gives one pause and takes one to times past and possible futures, imagining what that ancient living thing will continue to experience.