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Urban forestry in the United States

Gary Moll and Deborah Gangloff

Gary Moll is Director of Programs and Urban Forestry for the American Forestry Association, Washington, D.C., Deborah Gangloff coordinates the Association's communication effort.

The beginnings

· The beginnings Although the term did not come into common usage until the 1960s, urban forestry has been around as long as people have been planting trees in towns and villages where they live. In North America, early settlers cut the virgin timber to clear building sites and farm fields, construct their buildings and heat their houses, but it was not really until the late 1700s and early 1800s that Americans began to plant trees in towns and villages. In fact, Philadelphia, a historic city in Pennsylvania, did not have street trees until the late 1700s, partly because insurance companies would not insure houses with trees in front of them (Zube, 1973).

Immigrants to America brought with them their favourite species, such as Lombardy poplar, Norway maple, English elm and ailanthus, and these familiar species were planted for many years. Not until the mid-1800s did the concept of planting and propagating indigenous species become commonplace. Andrew Jackson Downing, who worked on some of America's finest city parks with their creators, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmsted, championed the practice of planting native trees in their native American soil, while counteracting the unpractical traditions of planting trees native to Europe with stock imported from the Old World. The species he favoured were maples, oaks and elms.

This concept of using native species was and is most clearly demonstrated in some of the most famous urban parks in the United States. Central Park, a 320-ha oasis in the middle of New York City, and Chicago's impressive Forest Preserve, as well as many others, were created by Olmsted and his contemporaries during a time of unprecedented economic and land-use development. These parks were the new urban person's refuge from the city streets.

In the less urban areas of the new country, towns were learning the economic and aesthetic values of community forests. Patterned after the well-known European community forests such as the Black Forest in the Federal Republic of Germany and those in France and Switzerland, some towns and villages started to set aside forests as community concerns or to create new ones. Although not a widespread practice until after the First World War, community forests supplied building materials, fuel, recreation and additional funds in the town coffers of many New England towns early in the 20th century (Hosmer, 1923). The earliest community forest in the United States was established by farsighted settlers from England in the town of Newington, New Hampshire, in 1710 (Brown, 1938).

Community groups of all kinds participated in the planning and development of these forests, including schools, local governments and churches. Their activity marks the beginning of the American people's involvement with their forest resources.

By 1953 a census of community forests recorded a total of 1752815 ha (Duthie, 1953). Today, few people who benefit from these forests realize their size or value. The community forest, however, continues to be an important part of life in the cities of the northeastern United States, although they have become far more important to urban people as a place of recreation and a source of fresh drinking-water than for wood products. The public works authorities who now manage most of these forests are more likely to promote their dams than the natural resource which protects the supply of fresh water. And because the foresters who manage these watersheds are isolated from "city hall" (municipal government) by layers of management - and thus isolated as well from the people - the benefits of these watersheds are not recognized.

The practitioners

The practitioners Following this appreciation for trees near cities and towns came the need for their care and maintenance by professionals. The state of Massachusetts in New England led the way with the establishment of the position of Town Tree Warden during the 1700s (Grey and Deneke, 1986). The practice of arboriculture, the care of trees in cities and towns, was solidified as a discipline with the publication of The care of trees in lawn, street and park by the renowned forester Bernard Fernow (1911). In 1910, an article in American Forestry, then the journal of the American Forestry Association, the national citizens' organization for trees and forests, recounted the story of a forester in New York City (Mell, 1910). Tree maintenance, insect control, tree planting and removal were all part of this man's duties; they would be familiar to many of our urban foresters in 1987.

Over the years, a variety of professionals have been involved in the management of the urban forest resource. Their titles include City Forester, Municipal or City Arborist, and Urban Forester. The technology of managing urban trees has developed into a science by piecing together the knowledge of a number of fields to create this new discipline of urban forestry.

Urban foresters in the United States work either for federal, state or local government, private businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or as consultants. They manage the trees along streets in cities, urban parks and open spaces. Some of them work in the suburbs and some have the opportunity to work with newly developing communities that are still forested. A number of state forestry agencies have hired urban foresters to work with several communities within a state. On average, states supply technical assistance to between 25 and 50 communities each year. Cities, towns and communities are legally authorized to hire their own urban forester, if local legislators and citizens place a high enough priority on the position to pay for it. An urban forester needs specific skills to maintain the urban forest as a healthy and renewable resource. However, for any urban forestry programme to thrive, a manager needs to be skilled at working with people: citizens, local government employees, the media and elected officials.

WILLOW OAKS IN AUTUMN enhancing the quality of life

The philosophy and the practice

The philosophy and the practice Forestry is the management of trees for the good of people. The importance of fitting the management needs of the resource to the interests and needs of people in cities and towns is the critical emphasis. The trees, shrubs and related plant material that grow in and around a community make up the urban forest. Viewing plant material collectively as a forest has been an important step toward improving the health and value of the trees in cities. Forestry offers resource managers an excellent perspective for decision-making: seeing a city's vegetation as an interlocking, interacting mixture of plants, soil, air and all natural elements that can be monitored for changing conditions and maintained in the most productive way. This change in perspective from individual trees to the forest complex has left its mark in the evolution of professionals who serve as the caretakers of American city trees.

Urban forestry became a concern of the federal government in 1978 with the passage of Public Law 95-313 which gave the US Forest Service responsibility to administer two efforts. Technical assistance money is passed to state forestry agencies and to some NGOs to meet county, city or town needs, while research monies fund US Forest Service research stations and university research. Although the amount of federal dollars spent on these programmes is small, the results they have produced are significant.

The federal technical assistance funds must be matched by local funding, either state of private. The minimum match required is 50 percent, but most state programmes supply 60-80 percent of the total. The effectiveness of the assistance programmes has been improved substantially by the efforts of volunteer citizen groups. As will be shown, citizen action in specific American cities can make the difference between a successful urban forestry programme or a failure. In fact, given the prerequisite of citizen involvement in local urban forestry programmes through various civic and community groups or through NGOs, the citizens determine if their town or city has a programme at all.

URBAN FORESTER IN SAN FRANCISCO dying trees are clear-felled and replacements planted

One common problem for the urban forests of American cities is the creeping crisis that sets in as city trees grow and mature while budgets and programmes shrink. In 1984, the delegates at the national meeting of the directors of parks and recreation identified trees as their biggest maintenance problem, a problem they have yet to communicate effectively to the public or their political leaders. An appreciation of the values and needs of city trees by citizens and decision-makers is what ultimately determines the size and success of local urban forestry programmes and their budgets.

Many cities in the United States suffer from this problem. New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta are good examples. All of them had good programmes at one time or another, but during the last decade, tree care has sunk low on their list of priorities. This is mainly because of maintenance costs when forests mature, and old trees need care and dying ones need replacement. A second problem is that, in some cases, the management of trees has been given to local governmental agencies that can expend only limited resources upon traditional forestry concerns, concerns that have drifted out of the mainstream of city development.

The decline in the health of forests in many cities in the United States is symptomatic of a condition that affects many cities; yet, urban forestry continues to grow and develop. The advent of microcomputers has opened up new management possibilities to mid- and small-size cities. Dozens of software packages have been produced to manage city trees by organizing and analysing a variety of data. This information has produced tree inventories that help managers to make long-range decisions about managing their trees and improving the productivity of their personnel.

Inventory systems have grown in value as urban foresters have learned to use them effectively. Perhaps the first lesson learned over the last decade is never to collect more data than needed. (Nothing kills the effectiveness of a management report more quickly than to have it sit on a shelf and not be used.) In the early 1970s, an inventory system designed by foresters working for the state of Kansas became popular for use in small cities and towns. This inventory could be completed in one day and the data all summarized the next. It gave city officials enough information to make management decisions by identifying the value of the tree resource, its health and the cost of maintenance (Moll, 1983).

The more complicated systems can pinpoint any tree in a city and detail its health, existing condition and history. The programme can detail the maintenance plan for the year under various spending levels and, perhaps even more important, show how a reduction in maintenance one year can increase maintenance costs in ten years. The need for long-range perspective has been a problem because foresters could not get officials concerned about problems that were ten years in the future. But, with computer programs, they now have effective forecasting tools. Arguments for reducing tree maintenance today are dramatically shown to be unwise in terms of tomorrow's cost projections, costs everyone knows will probably rise.

Because these computers can handle complex analysis, both research data and experience can assist in making long-term decisions. Research being done in California on tree roots, for example, is supplying information to managers on hidden maintenance costs (Wager and Barker, 1985). Competition between tree roots and pavements is costly, and this research is quantifying costs species by species. With this information the manager can evaluate a proposed planting plan for future maintenance costs using both above- and below-ground data by species. Planting the right tree in the right spot has proved a rational economic decision.

MAINTENANCE CHECK IN ALABAMA where a citizens' board is involved

Smaller cities and towns are also finding better methods of taking care of their trees. Some towns, for instance, have found a way to surmount the cost of a full-time forester: hire a half-time forester. This is not so difficult as it sounds. For instance, two communities can share the services of one forester. In other towns, urban foresters are hired part-time and permitted to do private consulting as well.

There are many other cost-cutting techniques that can help communities with smaller budgets to maintain programmes. Many towns and cities hire contractors instead of full-time crews. Contracting can save money both by reducing the overhead cost of employing full-time crews and by lowering the cost of administration. However, contracting can cause difficulties during storms. City crews can be assigned to clean up windfalls on roads quickly, while contract crews might choose more profitable private work at the time of the storm. In Cincinnati, Ohio, private and city crews are used in an effective combination: the city crew for stability and the private crews for large maintenance jobs planned well in advance. Since the contract crews are used during their slow season, their cost is kept low.

Some communities around Chicago have worked out a system to share office equipment when needed. With the advice of a private forester, they are using identical inventory software and hardware for their computers. If equipment is in use or out of order at one office, a manager can drive to another community and use its computer. This system saves each community equipment cost while increasing productivity.

TREES DAMAGED BY UTILITY CUTTINGS conflicts must be resolved

To benefit from wood waste, many communities either sell or give away the products of their trees that need to be removed, including bark mulch, wood chips, lumber and firewood. The urban forest manager saves the costs of disposing of the wood waste, and can use it to make money or to promote good public relations. Great care must be taken when using urban trees for lumber or wood chips, since they are often filled with metal or concrete. The chance of hitting foreign materials is reduced when cutting trees for firewood, now more valuable since the increases in oil prices in 1973 and 1979.

The technology of managing urban trees has developed into a science by piecing together the knowledge of a number of fields to create this new discipline of urban forestry.

CLEAN-UP AFTER WIND STORM maintenance costs are high

Parks are a major feature of some cities, and they can bring a different dimension to urban forestry. These parks range in size from "vest pocket" parks of a few hundred square metres to hundreds of hectares. For example, Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, occupies 400 ha and stretches from the forested countryside to the city centre. Because of its size, natural condition, and linkage to forested wildlands, it contains some unique urban conditions. Wild deer and fox are frequently seen along the park drive, which is lined by mature conifers that can reach about 30 m in height and 1.2 m in diameter. At the rural end of the park is the World Forestry Center (formerly the Western Forestry Center), which contains the most impressive combination of forestry education displays and material to be found anywhere in the United States. The park also contains an outstanding city zoo, a Japanese garden and a rose garden. It is indeed an environmental education classroom and a special asset to Portland.

More famous urban parks like Central Park in New York and the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco were designed by landscape architects and exist in the middle of large population centres. Nowhere are trees and open space more appreciated. Both are referred to by residents simply as "the Park", and these green islands are widely used on fine days. Park managers have been able to maintain the support of their residents while doing major work in the parks, including cutting trees. The forester in the Golden Gate Park has been able to regenerate some of the areas of 100 year-old Monterey pines by clearcutting small sections of the park's trees. Since clearcutting, even in the wild, has been a hotly debated issue with the American public for 20 years, it is surprising that this programme was successful in an area so prized by the public. It thus provides an example to study and emulate for decades to come.


Profiles Many of the cities in the United States learned the value of their urban forests through the disaster of the Dutch elm disease, which had a major impact on many urban forestry programmes. The elm was the most popular street tree in the United States, and it is still considered the best. When the disease hit the country, it wiped out most of the elms in the country over a 20-year period. Once the disease had reached a city, all the elms could be destroyed in as little as three years.

The value of urban forest management was dramatically demonstrated during the elm epidemic in two cities in Minnesota, Minneapolis and St Paul called the Twin Cities, because they are adjoined and similar in many ways, including the make-up of their urban forests. However, they were not at all similar in the way they approached the elm crisis. St Paul took the crisis a day at a time and spent its time and money removing dead trees. Minneapolis, on the other hand, counter-attacked with a comprehensive programme that attempted to eradicate the disease completely.

The results were dramatic. Today Minneapolis is soaking up the rewards of that extensive programme: over half of its original elms are still standing. The city developed all the necessary elements for a good urban forestry programme: professionals to supply technical information, local political support to supply the legal base and money for management and, perhaps most important, citizen support.

Minneapolis citizens raised money for the city's elm programme at social functions called "Beetle Bashes" (in reference to the insect spreading the disease) and organized neighbourhood "elm sweeps" to collects infected firewood. They also took the initiative to develop the State Shade Tree Advisory Board. This board, consisting of concerned citizens, played the leading role in obtaining funds for the elm programme.

New development offers many opportunities for the practice of urban forestry, and a number of state forestry agencies developed projects to address land development in wooded areas. In Maryland, an urban forester was hired in the early 1970s to work with local planning departments, developers and builders in three forested counties where the sales of houses had recently displaced forestry, farming, and commercial fishing as the major industries.

Since the system of government in Maryland devolves upon the counties, the forester's efforts are directed at county planning officials and at private developers who are planning projects. The forester supplies them with technical information about forest land and the changes that will result from development. The planning offices and commissions are able to use information about the trees and forests in their regulations for subdivision plans and zoning ordinances, as well as on a site-by-site basis as new housing developments are built.

Given the prerequisite of citizen involvement in local urban forestry programmes through various civic and community groups or through NGOs, the citizens determine if their town or city has a programme at all.

The forestry profession is very young when it comes to the skills required to coordinate efforts in the fields of forestry, planning and building. The foresters who have worked in this field have shared successes and learned from each other. Today there are still only a small number of professionals skilled in this discipline, which requires foresters to use all the training they have in tree biology and the nature of soils while learning about planning and zoning for residential and commercial land use. It also requires that the forester learn how to work among these groups both in public meetings and in the field, so that realistic goals can be set and so that communities with healthy trees can become a regular part of the countryside.

Citizen groups or activists have played a major role in the development of urban forestry programmes in all parts of the country. In Los Angeles, an activist named Andy Lipkis has had a big impact on the trees. His organization, TreePeople, organized volunteers to plant and care for trees throughout the area with the express goal of planting one million trees before the 1984 Olympic Games. He has made good use of the resources in his community and enlisted industry and business to donate time, materials and money to promote the needs of trees.

In the early years, TreePeople was mostly involved with planting trees on barren land along motorways and on hillsides. The organization was able to close down the Los Angeles Freeway, one of the busiest motorways in the United States, to hold a foot race to promote its cause. Profits from the event went to support the work of TreePeople, and the public became aware of the group's ambitious goal. The organization received some assistance from the state government to publish a tree planters' guide and other promotional material. As its reputation grew, it received donations of work from printers and artists, and also received stock from nurseries at low cost. Surplus fruit-trees (trees that would be destroyed at the end of the sales season because they were not sold) from large southern California nurseries are planted by low-income people who could not afford to buy trees. Even film stars have donated their time to present public service messages promoting the work of TreePeople.

While TreePeople helped the city reach a major goal in improving the future quality of the air by planting trees, the organization has also made the citizens of Los Angeles aware of the benefits of the urban forest. Since the 1984 Olympic Games, TreePeople has coordinated efforts to air-lift fruit-trees to Africa for planting there.

Many of the cities in the United States learned the value of their urban forest through the disaster of the Dutch elm disease.

Since the 1984 Olympic Games, TreePeople has coordinated efforts to airlift fruit-trees to Africa for planting there.

Looking at tomorrow

Looking at tomorrow Urban forestry has opened up a new dimension for forestry that offers tremendous opportunities, but there is still much to learn about the application of forestry principles to urban areas. The very basis for our knowledge of the growth, survival and suitability of trees to a site is soils - something we know very little about in urban areas. Although the forestry profession is only one among many supplying the technical information needed to manage the urban forest, it is probably the most important since it can combine all natural sciences into a single management operation.

There is no question that working in the cities is good for the forestry profession. The 1980s have been difficult years for conservation in the United States. Federal, state and local programmes have suffered severe budgetary reductions. Part of the cause for these reductions is the break in communication between urban people and resource managers who pride themselves on being part of a traditionally rural profession.

The goal of the urban forestry effort is to improve the health and value of trees in and around urban areas. To succeed at this, the technical skills of urban foresters must continue to improve. Furthermore, municipal governments must increase their commitment to their forests, and consider the needs of trees in their daily management decisions.

Urban foresters are improving their skills but at the same time the discipline is still in a phase of development. Technical knowledge is supplied by many types of professionals, and there is a need for more cooperative efforts. With the decline in federal programmes for conservation, the road to success is more difficult than it was a few years ago.

Forestry agencies in the United States have no choice but to improve their relationships with urban people. The nature of a democratic society will continue to force foresters to come out of the woods and improve their communications with urban citizens and community leaders. If these ties are not improved, foresters will continue to watch the decline of their forestry programme budgets.

Municipal governments will have to increase their awareness of conservation and the application of forestry to land-use decisions. They will need to be more aware of the natural environment or suffer the expensive consequences. Through the 1970s, the United States made major advances in programmes to protect the environment. These cleanup efforts were costly to citizens, industry and government. The cleanups will probably recur on a periodic basis until cities bring their management and development philosophies in line with the realities of nature.

The people doing urban forestry work are not all of the same school or even of the same profession. There is not a single formula for managing the urban forest, and some programmes would benefit from a more directed effort. The diversity of skills is providing a pool of knowledge about useful techniques that some day will be shaped into a model programme for urban foresters of the future. The interest and involvement of citizens are proving to be a strong force uniting these groups and improving the quality of our urban forests.

Urban forestry is starting to forge new ties with citizens and the media. One of the weaknesses of forestry and related conservation sciences is the outreach programmes that interpret and transmit technical practices to citizens. Since 1981, the American Forestry Association has taken an active interest in urban forestry, and is filling this role as communicator with citizens. The association sponsors the National Urban Forest Council, a network of professionals and citizens interested in urban trees. The council has pinpointed specific opportunities to promote urban forestry concepts and is working through its committees to accomplish this goal.

From both research studies and practical experience, we are learning that the urban forest has a bigger impact on our lives than we once thought. Two subjects of interest are human health and the ways in which trees are valuable. Recent studies by Roger Ulrich, professor at the University of Delaware, show a direct connection between trees and the recovery rate of hospital patients (Ulrich, 1984). While recovering from surgery, patients whose hospital rooms overlooked greenery were found to require less medication and shorter hospital stays and to suffer less from depression. A practical lesson has come from a police chief who worked in two of the toughest areas in the country, Harlem and the Bronx in New York City. He found trees to be one of the most effective tools he had for improving relations between the police and the citizens in reducing crime. He used his policemen to plant trees with community children, and the results were dramatic.

Our growing ability to link urban forestry specifically to economic and social benefits will help it to win budget battles at the federal, state and local levels. Then the challenge to urban foresters is to be able to communicate these values effectively to urban people and their decision-makers in government. This will require the help of public relations people, since urban foresters have found that they cannot fill this role adequately themselves. Only in this way will urban forestry programmes in the United States be permitted to grow and serve the needs of all American people and protect their investment in their valuable forest resources.


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