The Future of Urban Forestry

September 30, 2016

Urban Foresters have long debated how urban forestry should be viewed and approached. Although at first it may seem like a small difference in semantics, the identity of an urban forest is either “the forest in an urban area,” or the “urban conditions that the forest adapts to.” These are polarizing differences, and cities that strive for a sustainable approach, those that desire, perhaps, to become an “eco-city”, understand that identity is critical. That is why I believe the future of urban forestry lies less in what we know about trees and more about how we deal with the changing dynamics of urban spaces as a whole and our society.

Until recently, city-dwellers generally viewed forests as separate from people, ecosystems out in the countryside provided only habitat for wildlife and means of timber production. This widely held view supported the belief that city trees were only there for aesthetic beauty. What we see now is a coming of age for city trees. It is more and more common these days to see general and growing recognition that urban trees provide a whole range of benefits to cities.

“Urban forests are complex ecosystems, and increasingly we have come to understand that urban forests both reside within the dynamic landscape of the city and are integral to the city’s function and experience.”

– Max Piana & Blake Troxel, Beyond Planting: An Urban Forestry Primer

Cities with great urban forests provide an excellent example of how this maturing identity is being developed and viewed:

municipal office denver urban trees

Municipal Office in Denver, CO found in their urban forest.

Charlotte, NC: Charlotte estimates that its trees provide more than $900,000 in energy savings annually.

Denver, CO: Colorado’s capital estimates that $18 million in tourism can be attributed to its park systems. Moreover, it says the urban forests increase health benefits by as much as $65 million.  

Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee’s urban forest is believed to remove nearly 500 tons of pollution annually, accounting for up to $2.59 million in savings.

New York, NY: New York’s urban forests store 1.35 million tons of carbon at a value of $24.9 million dollars and remove more than 2,000 tons of pollution each year for a total of $10.6 million in value.

Jefferson Memorial Trees

Jefferson Memorial in DC surrounded by urban trees.

Austin, TX: Austin has 36 acres of park per 1,000 people and a diverse tree canopy thanks to strong partnerships between nonprofits and government agencies.

Washington, DC: With an unofficial title of The City of Trees, as of today, DC’s urban tree canopy hovers near 35 percent, with nearly 2 million trees across the city.

The future of urban forestry in the US can build on the ideals and foundational efforts from each of these cities to apply across the country. As our cities grow and adapt, so will our urban forests. By looking at urban forests as “forests in an urban area” rather than the “urban conditions that the forest adapts to,” our cities can plan for a cohesive future that supports resilient communities and sustainable urban forests rather than the slim hope that our urban forest will survive the next hurricane or ice storm in our future.