Innovations in Urban Forestry: Urban Forestry's Next Era Focusing on Integrating Different Disciplines

By Leahy, Ian | American Forests, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Innovations in Urban Forestry: Urban Forestry's Next Era Focusing on Integrating Different Disciplines


Leahy, Ian, American Forests


THE IDEA OF ACTIVELY MANAGING TREES IN CITIES and towns goes back to some of the world's oldest civilizations; ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Chinese, Japanese and Romans all invested in green spaces within the expanses of their bustling cities. They created groves around their places of worship and planted trees around buildings, each in their own way recognizing the inherent value of engaging with nature, not just on great excursions but on a daily basis.

By the 19th century, as modern cities began to take shape, this tradition continued. Paris became defined by its tree-lined streets. The much younger United States, still grappling with its relationship to an untamed wilderness frontier, perceived forests as a threat and hindrance more than an asset. The only value many thought trees had was in planting them as a reminder of their homeland. Not surprisingly, many invasive species were introduced during this period.

There were, however, exceptions. Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead forged a green aesthetic for numerous college campuses, the National Zoo and parks. Most famously, he was part of a visionary team of city leaders and activists who saw the need for green space for working-class residents in a still relatively small, but rapidly developing, New York City. Even as farms could still be found in the middle of Manhattan, Olmstead created a landscape design which resulted in an 800-acre urban park, Central Park, whose value would only be fully realized decades later.

Toward the turn of the 20th century, a more scientifically-based concept began to emerge, finding voice through horticultural societies that favored native species. In a 1911 address to American Forests, then a professional association of foresters, horticulturists and conservationists known as the American Forestry Association, J. J. Levison, a forester for the Brooklyn and Queens Parks Department, urged the organization to "set down for its object furtherance of proper care, planting and study of city trees throughout the country."

Levison was voicing a growing need for national leadership on urban tree care, and American Forests responded by expanding its conservation scope to include urban areas in addition to its historical wildlands-focused work, which protected wildlife habitat and provided water and timber to the centers of commerce and expanding populations that demanded use of that water and timber. American Forests in that era helped forge the modern standards of arboriculture and later created jobs planting trees through the Civilian Conservation Corps, giving people dignified employment and stability through the Great Depression. As a precursor to modern day urban tree canopy assessments, American Forests also supported a national inventory of the country's urban elm trees, anticipating the threat of Dutch elm disease that was affecting Europe in the 1930s.

By the mid-20th century, it was clear that the management of individual green spaces and individual trees needed to evolve further. A more science-based, comprehensive approach to managing tree canopy in and around cities was needed. Not coincidentally, the term "urban forestry" was coined in 1965, at the University of Toronto.

This more sophisticated effort to study and manage, as a cohesive ecosystem, the natural resources of even the most intensely built environments, needed a national convener and voice. American Forests once again stepped into that role, organizing a first-of-its-kind National Urban Forestry Conference in 1978, and helping to forge and implement a vision that would become, in the 1990 Farm Bill, the U. S. Forest Service's Urban and Community Forestry Program, which remains dedicated to addressing the unique needs of tree canopy in urban landscapes.

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. …

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