Early 20th-century Urban Forestry

In 1925’s Our Trees and How They Serve Us, Rufus S. Maddox and Almon E. Parkins relate that many of America’s “artificial” or manmade forests—such as those in urban environs—were less than 50 years old at that time.[1] Yet, many of the same urban forest issues that we discuss today were already being discussed in the early to mid-1900s.

  • South Dakota State Capitol, Pierre, South Dakota, which was constructed between 1905 and 1910

    South Dakota State Capitol, Pierre, South Dakota, which was constructed between 1905 and 1910. Credit: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

    A U.S. Forest Service circular from 1908 details how, in the northern prairies of the Dakotas and western Minnesota, the proper placement of evergreens around the northern and western sides of buildings is essential for protection from the area’s cold winds.[2]

  • In a 1911 address to American Forests (or the American Forestry Association as we were known at the time), J.J. Levison, a forester for the Brooklyn and Queens Park Department, urged the organization to “set down for its object the furtherance of proper care, planting and study of city trees throughout the country. … It might also consider and recommend the adoption of uniform city tree ordinances, the publication of authentic information in city trees and the employment of a shade and ornamental tree expert by the state who would lend his services to the various cities of that state in need of his advice.”[3]
  • In 1924, what would become the International Society of Arboriculture was founded as an organization where those interested in shade trees could interact.
  • A December 1929 article in American Forestry is written about pruning, specifically with the “one who would improve his shade trees” in mind, offering tips on when and how one should prune shade and ornamental trees.[4]
  • Civilian Conservation Corps, Third Corps Area: Beltsville, Maryland

    Civilian Conservation Corps, Third Corps Area: Beltsville, Maryland. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

    Seeing the destruction Dutch elm disease was causing Europe’s trees, the Federal Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine conducted a roll call of America’s elms in 1937, discovering more than a billion elms across the country. As detailed in American Forestry’s May 1937 issue, “Least in numbers but greatest in value are the 125 million elm trees that shade the streets, yards and houses of American villages and cities. They are valued at $662 million.”[5] Many American cities lost hundreds of thousands of elms to the disease throughout the 20th century.

  • In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s Tree Army, the Civilian Conservation Corps, helped plant trees in many urban environments, in addition to their copious work in national parks and forests.

By the middle of the century, the myriad tasks, recommendations and science behind trees in urban spaces would begin to coalesce in a new field: urban forestry.

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[1] Maddox, R.S. and Parkins, A.E. Our Trees and How They Serve Us; Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1925.
[2] Fetherolf, J.M. Forest Planting on the Northern Prairies. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Circular 145. 1908, 145-08-1.
[3] Levison, J.J. City Trees and Their Relation to Forestry. American Forestry. 1911, 17(2), 25-30.
[4] Collingwood. G.H. The Why and When of Tree Pruning. American Forestry. 1929, 35(12), 35-38.
[5] Collingwood, G.H. A Billion Elms at Bay. American Forestry. 1937, 43(5), 6-11.

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