Urban and peri-urban forestry throughout history

First mentioned as early as in the 19th century, the term “urban forestry” has been experiencing a renewed interest since the 1960s with the gradual recognition of its potential and substantial role in making cities more liveable and sustainable in the long-term. While having its roots in the world’s oldest civilizations, the concept and practices of planting trees in human settlements have followed different trends through the ages, depending on cultures and regions. Today, it needs to be re-appropriated in many countries, particularly in the developing world where urbanization problems are very significant.

At first, when human population started to congregate and settle in small and sedentary urban centres during the development of agriculture 10 000 to 15 000 years ago, trees were primarily used as a source of food. Later, in ancient Chinese, west Asian and Greek civilizations the planting and management of trees and forests was more the result of aesthetic and spiritual considerations than of utilitarian benefits. Accordingly, a number of ancient cities, such as Babylon, had highly developed parks, gardens and other green spaces.

©FAO/Rosetta Messori

During the Middle Ages, warfare and feudalism in Europe led to the establishment of walled cities and towns often surrounded by agricultural land and natural landscape. Peri-urban wooded lands were accessible only to royalty and nobility, serving for recreational hunting or as wood pasture with plains of grass and tracts of pollards. Within walls, population growth gradually put pressure on available urban space, resulting in the deterioration of green areas and sanitary conditions; botanical gardens thus emerged for medicinal uses. Elsewhere, urban forestry practices varied: extensive roadside tree plantings were carried out in China, forests were established by the Aztecs as temple gardens in Mexico City, while in India sultans and maharajas ordered the development of a number of urban parks.

©FAO/François Côté

©FAO/Rosetta Messori

©FAO/Ami Vitale

By the early modern period, in Europe the UPF concept started to shift from elite parks providing various goods and services to city trees used for public recreation and beautification. The term “arboriculture”, along with exotic gardens, public plazas, interior patios and romantic appreciation of wooded area, flourished from that time on. In the late 19th century, as introduced pests and diseases were starting to affect both woodland and urban trees, the field of UPF started to professionalize its operations with the emergence of occupations such as city forester, city arborist, municipal forester, municipal arborist or tree warden. During this period, many developing countries were under colonial control, which was exercised at all levels of the urban hierarchy, including for UPF. Trees in the urban environment were often used for residential segregation, which was reinforced by avenue trees, leaving a bitter legacy of urban trees from the colonial past.

©FAO/Michel Côté 

The Western historic and cultural tendency to consider urban green as an element merely aimed at decorating and beautifying cities, has been maintained to the present day. This is illustrated by the fact that literature on urban trees is much richer in landscaper architecture that in forestry journals of landscape.

But perceptions of urban forestry are changing, especially since the 1960s, with growing interest among foresters in UPF as an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to address the challenges of growing trees in urban environments, given the environmental services and economic benefits they provide.

In fact, the development of urban forests and green areas can contribute significantly to sustainable urban development in terms of improving the quality of life and environment for urban populations, and, in the developing world, alleviating poverty and providing livelihoods.

Today, a growing number of communities are applying a technical and scientific approach to urban tree placement and maintenance.  However, UPF can still be considered a fledgling discipline. As such, efforts must be made to continue raising awareness among policy-makers and the wider public about its crucial contributions, with emphasis on developing countries.

last updated:  Thursday, August 21, 2014