We study the urban forest as a social-ecological system

More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and that figure is projected to increase in the future. Increasing urban populations have resulted in tremendous pressure on urban environments including urban forests, or all the vegetation in an urban area, which provide important positive externalities to urban residents. 

Urban forests provide ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration and storage, energy savings and shade, storm water runoff mitigation, aesthetic benefits, and attenuation of the effects of the urban heat island. Yet, urban growth has resulted in a decline in urban forest structure and related function in the United States, elevating the importance of research to understand how the interactions between people, their institutions, and the biophysical environment influence the sustainability of urban ecosystems. 

At the Indiana University Bloomington Urban Forestry Research Group (BUFRG), we study the urban forest as a social-ecological system, a conceptualization that enables researchers and managers to better understand the factors that influence sustainable urban forest outcomes and provision of ecosystem services. We believe that the urban forest is best understood and studied as a social-ecological system (SES) of linked human and natural components, that emphasizes the importance of the interactions between the biophysical resource, the community and its institutions on the production of observed outcomes such as ecosystem services (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1

Urban forests can be best understood and studied as a Social-Ecological System (SES) of interlinked human and natural components. The production of ecosystem services in urban forests is affected by the attributes of the “Biophysical Resource” (trees and vegetation structure), the characteristics of the “Community” of resource users and beneficiaries, and the “Institutions” (formal and informal rules, norms and strategies governing how people and groups of people interact with one another and with the physical world) that affect how the community manages trees. The interactions between the community, the biophysical resource and institutions influence the types and magnitude of ecosystem services provided by the urban forest.

What our work draws from

Our work draws from the Social-Ecological Systems Framework developed by the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and colleagues (e.g., Ostrom 2009) and the Model of Sustainable Urban Forestry developed by Jim Clark and colleagues (Clark et al. 1997) to generate an integrative framework to inform our study of the factors that influence the structure and function of vegetation in cities (see Table 1). This Urban Forests as Social-Ecological Systems framework informs the research questions, variable selection, and study systems in all BUFRG projects.

  • Table 1

    Social-Ecological Systems (SES) Framework

    (Ostrom 2009)

    Model of Urban Forest Sustainability

    (Clark et al. 1997)

    Our Framework

    Urban Forests as

    Social-Ecological Systems

    (IU Bloomington Urban Forestry Research Group)

    Resource System

    Resource Units

    Vegetative Resource

    Biophysical Resource (Trees)


    Supportive Community


    Governance System

    Adequate Management


  • Literature cited on this page
    • Clark, J.R., Matheny, N.P., Cross, G., and Wake, V. 1997. “A model of urban forest sustainability.” Journal of Arboriculture 23(1), 17-30.
    • Ostrom, E. 2009. A general framework for analyzing the sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325: 419-422.
  • Awards

    Professor Burney Fischer developed the first ever Urban Forest Management course at IUB SPEA in 2006. The Indiana Urban Forest Council recognized this new college-level teaching initiative in urban forestry because it doubled the number of college course offered from 1 (Purdue University Dept of Forestry and Natural Resources) to 2. The course has continued to be offered each year through spring 2017.

    Indiana University, "Excellence in Research" Campus Sustainability Award, 2012.

    Read the news release

The image caption follows
Indiana University, "Excellence in Research" Campus Sustainability Award, 2012