Early History of Urban Forests

The use of the phrase “urban forestry” was coined in the 20th century, but researchers have found evidence of what is known today as urban forestry in some of the world’s oldest civilizations.

Nationals Gardens, Athens, Greece, which were created between 1838 and 1840

Nationals Gardens, Athens, Greece, which were created between 1838 and 1840. Credit: Elliot Freeman/Flickr

Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris, France

Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris, France. Credit: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Chinese and Romans all cared for greenspaces within the expanses of their prominent cities. They created gardens and groves around their places of worship. They planted trees around buildings — by 1500 B.C. transplanting of trees in Egypt was commonplace.

During the Middle Ages, urban greenspaces, especially botanical gardens, were cultivated for medicinal purposes, which evolved in the Renaissance to exotic, foreign species being traded and cultivated as part of the scientific experiments of the time. The term “arborist” was first recorded in 1578 and an early tree care book was published in 1618.

As the Renaissance gave way to the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, botanical gardens were no longer cultivated solely for medicine, as arboriculture and horticulture became more widespread. Landscape design began to receive more attention with Paris becoming famously tree-lined in the 1800s, as a military strategy to control troop movement and provide defensive structures.

Across the pond, America’s forestlands weren’t always favorable, as they occupied prime cropland. Oftentimes, trees and greenspaces were cleared to make way for homes and buildings. Trees in particular only found success in American cities as reminders of one’s heritage: Early immigrants would bring seeds and the like from their homeland and plant them around their new home. Many non-native species were introduced to the U.S. during this time period, as people wanted to plant species with which they were familiar. However, these practices often introduced non-native pests and diseases to American soil, such as white pine blister rust, which is currently wreaking havoc on America’s western forests.

America in the 19th century saw its first horticultural societies, and during an 1895 meeting of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, a participant would read the paper “Trees for City Streets,” saying, “There are a dozen or two dozen kinds of trees adapted for use in the city streets. They should be allowed to reach the diameter of about 20 inches and should then be replaced by younger trees.”[2] By the middle of the century, Andrew Jackson Downing began leading a movement to start using native American trees and plants — such as maples, oaks and elms — in place of imported species. Downing also worked with Frederick Olmsted, who is regarded as the father of landscape architecture and urban parks. Olmsted is to thank for iconic parks, like New York’s Central Park, around the country.

The movement begun by Downing, Olmsted and their contemporaries continued into the 20th century, as community forestry and urban forestry in America would evolve further.

Next: Early 20th-century Urban Forestry



[1] Grey, G.W. and Deneke, F.J. Urban Forestry; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: New York, 1978.
[2] Tree Planting. The New Jersey Forester. 1895, 1(3), 31.

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