Urban Forests Case Studies – Introduction

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There are many challenges facing cities in the 21st century: aging gray infrastructures, social and economic inequality, maxed out systems and grids, extensive urban development. With more than 80 percent of the U.S. population now calling urban areas home, finding solutions to these issues that fit within a city’s budgetary constraints, while also enhancing the city for the better, is of tantamount importance. As a result, cities across the country are developing innovative strategies and programs to help solve their woes. Their solution? Urban forests.

American Forests defines urban forests as “ecosystems composed of trees and other vegetation that provide cities and municipalities with environmental, economic and social benefits. They include street and yard trees, vegetation within parks and along public rights of way, water systems, fish and wildlife.” Unlike traditional infrastructure, such as pipelines, buildings and roadways, urban forests appreciate in value over time, meaning a low-cost solution now in the form of urban forest investments becomes a long-term benefit.

This publication represents extensive research, interviews and examinations into 12 cities that have begun — or are continuing — to make an investment in their urban forests in order to reap future gains. Unsurprisingly, every city on this list is unique, with its own complex history, agendas, governments, needs and challenges. Despite their differences, though, there are some common threads throughout their tales and lessons to be learned.

  • Urban forests are a cost-effective way to address some of the expensive problems cities face. From helping manage stormwater to reducing energy demands, green infrastructure — from trees to green roofs to landscaped boulevards to rain gardens — pays dividends and is less costly than its gray counterpart.
  • No man is an island. Strong communities and neighborhoods add value to our cities and our individual lives. Urban forests bring communities together by offering spaces for interaction, which increases the well-being of a neighborhood. Urban forests can be unifying forces in every community — from the low-income to the more affluent.
  • No one can effectively implement change alone. Public-public, public-private and private-private partnerships are vital to achieving a city’s long-term objectives. No city has found lasting success without the cooperation of its citizenry, government, businesses and nonprofits.
  • Funding tree planting can be easy; funding maintenance shows real commitment to a city’s future. While many city leaders are willing to fund tree planting efforts to improve their urban forest, the proper funding that would ensure the long-term success of those efforts is often denied. For urban forests to truly appreciate in value, urban forestry teams need appropriate levels of funding and support for staff and equipment to provide the proper maintenance and management of these valuable assets.

The following 12 case studies will echo these lessons. The studies have been grouped by the dominant theme that emerged in the city’s work, but all of these ideas have resonance in each study. However, these studies should not be mistaken for comprehensive accounts of the urban forest work occurring in each respective city. They are snapshots in time — reflections on where the city is and where it is hoping to go. These are studies in potential. Studies in ingenuity. Studies in the commitment of individuals, groups, organizations and government. Studies that reveal a glimpse of brighter, cleaner, greener cities in our future. This publication reveals where we are and where we could be if we can band together to invest in urban forests for our benefit and the benefit of generations to come.

Next: Portland – Introduction