Parks and tree-lined sidewalks promote physical activity and public health. Credit: Yinghai Lu.
In 1982, American Forests formalized its years of urban forest education, outreach and discussions by creating, for the first time, a separate urban forestry program. In an address at the second National Urban Forestry Conference that same year, American Forests’ then-Vice President, Rexford A. Resler, described urban and community forestry as “the scientific and systematic management of all natural resources in and near our cities.” He challenged attendees to “work together to take our American public through the process of exposure, involvement and commitment to the urban and community forestry concept.”
A DISCIPLINE COMES INTO ITS OWN
In the ensuing 34 years, urban forestry has grown into a robust, sophisticated field. World-renowned scientists from the U.S. Forest Service urban field stations and other federal and state agencies, universities and private companies use leading-edge technologies and techniques, growing our understanding of the impacts of trees, and often specific species, on water and air quality, economic viability and human health. Human health and economic research, in particular, have changed people’s perspectives of the role trees can play in urban environments. From studies showing impacts on crime, domestic violence, ADHD symptoms, cultural isolation, neighborhood stability, student grades and even birth weight, trees are proving their worth in urban landscapes in many ways.
We recognize that urban forests are not a panacea for our many complex urban challenges. When addressing stormwater management and air quality, or crime and cultural isolation, there are many considerations, both technical and socioeconomic. But, when urban forests are designed and managed properly as part of the solution, there is strong scientific and experiential evidence showing that they can be a significant contribution.
To that end, in disciplines as diverse as education, healthcare, city planning and transportation, there is newfound interest in better understanding how to harness the urban forest to address their different needs. Yet, in spite of the advances, these voices are often isolated within their own fields. Restoring urban forests is not a strategy included at the decision-making table often enough because the research and technical knowledge of how urban forests function and their benefits is not yet fully incorporated into how built-environments are designed.
A PLATFORM, NOT A SINGLE ISSUE
A coalition of national urban forestry organizations came together 10 years ago to figure out how to better work together to advance a unified urban forest agenda for our nation’s communities. Named the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC), this network has solidified that foundation and become, in recent years, a space to engage diverse disciplines, including city planners, educators, landscape architects, nonprofit leaders, scientists, arborists, foresters, nursery managers and many other professionals who care for, monitor and advocate for trees and our urban forests as a whole. With a strong and enthusiastic membership, the coalition is working to expand even further the diversity of disciplines that are represented.
A few years ago, a group of 25 urban forestry leaders from diverse perspectives across the country were selected to serve on a “Vibrant Cities and Urban Forests Task Force.” They were tasked with defining what characteristics make a community “vibrant,” and how enhancing urban forestry at all levels can positively impact quality of life. The primary lessons learned from that process were enlightening:
- Urban forestry is a platform that addresses numerous concerns, it’s not a single issue.
- Urban forestry is a successful topic, applicable to any issue of interest to community advocates.
- Bring urban forestry to people rather than expecting people to come to urban forestry.
This seemingly subtle shift represents an evolution of thinking about our field, from the 1980s when Rexford Resler spoke of bringing the American public to the concept of urban forestry. It is clear today that a more effective approach lies in bringing urban forestry as a platform to other disciplines to incorporate into their overall objectives.