UI professor earns $250,000 Heinz Family Foundation grant

UI professor earns $250,000 Heinz Family Foundation grant

URBANA — A University of Illinois professor who studies the impact of green space on health, crime and aggression in urban settings has won a $250,000 unrestricted grant from the Heinz Family Foundation.

Ming Kuo, an environmental psychologist, was honored in the "environment" category in the 23rd annual awards named for the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz.

Kuo's research has affected urban planning and design in the United States and internationally, including a $10 million tree-planting initiative in Chicago, and led to new approaches to treating patients.

Her rigorous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of connecting with nature, especially for children's development, the Heinz Family Foundation said. Kuo has studied the relationship between nature and rates of crime and violence, well-being and coping, exercise and vitality, and attention, self-control and learning.

In the 1990s, Kuo and Bill Sullivan, co-founders of the UI's Human-Environment Research Lab, studied a public housing complex where residents were randomly assigned to apartments, some with greener settings and some without. Tests showed that residents in buildings with greenery had lower rates of aggression and violence, and correlated with lower crime rates.

In the 2000s, Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor found that ADHD symptoms in children decreased after short-term activities in green outdoor settings. A follow-up study on children with milder symptoms found they demonstrated better concentration after only 20 minutes in a park than they did after other walks in neighborhood and downtown settings.

"Her research shows natural spaces are not luxuries or add-ons to urban design, but essential to community well-being, and to our children's mental and physical health and development," Teresa Heinz, chairwoman of the Heinz Family Foundation, said in a release.

Kuo's work has helped shape federal landscaping guidelines and research agendas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Agencies in Wales, Canada, the Netherlands and the Caribbean are drawing on her research to argue for more urban green space.

There's a growing realization among urban planners that "nature plays an important role in the functioning of a city," Kuo said. "I don't do research to have it sit on a shelf, so seeing changes such as the commitment to tree planting in Chicago is very exciting to me and my colleagues."