Urban Forestry and Sustainability

Scientists now acknowledge that our planet has entered the Anthropocene—a new geologic era in which humans are the drivers of rapidly changing global and local environmental conditions. The pressures of the Anthropocene threaten the future of humanity: extraction of increasingly limited natural resources; pollution of air and water; loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services; and rapidly increasing human populations. Moreover, climate change—increasing temperatures, greater rainfall variability, and extreme weather events—compound all other pressures.

The majority of these impacts will be felt by urban areas; over 50 percent of people already live in cities, and by 2050, this will be 80 percent. To make sure that future predominately urban societies have the physical, human, social, and natural capital necessary to produce a reasonable quality-of-life despite the pressures of the Anthropocene, we need radical efforts to redesign our worldviews and activities to recognize the biophysical limitations of our planet. Urban forests have the ability to mitigate some of the above pressures on urban societies. Urban forests produce environmental benefits—e.g., carbon sequestration, storm water management, air pollution reduction—and economic benefits—e.g., decreased energy costs—that can lessen the impacts of climate change on cities.

BUFRG research in urban forestry and municipal sustainability

Two projects by BUFRG researchers have investigated the linkages between urban forestry and municipal sustainability in the state of Indiana. In the spring and summer of 2010, Burney Fischer and Jess Vogt conducted a survey of the urban forestry and community sustainability programs of Indiana municipalities with the designation of Tree City USA. They developed two indices to assess urban forestry program strength and community sustainability program strength using parallel factor analyses. Regression of index scores revealed a significant correlation between urban forestry and community sustainability program strength, although not all cities showed this relationship. Thus, there is potential to use the relative strength of one program to improve the strength of the other (White Paper available here). A new BUFRG project, Indiana Municipal Urban Forests Environmental Sustainability Review continues this work.

In a separate study, Sarah Mincey and Jess Vogt collaborated with then-SPEA Ph.D. in Public Affairs students Rachel M. Krause and Tatyana Ruseva to survey 22 Indiana municipalities involved in the Statewide Urban Street tree Inventory (SUSI) program in 2008 to investigate the relationship of local policies, management activities, and institutional arrangements to the biophysical outcomes produced by the urban forest. We find generally find that higher levels of ecosystem services are found in cities with more comprehensive forestry management and community involvement. Results were presented at Association for the Advancement of Public Policy and Management 2010 Conference.

BUFRG collaborator Jess Vogt and her Lab for Urban Forestry in the Anthropocence

BUFRG collaborator Jess Vogt conducts research on the role urban forests play in sustainability and resilience in urban environments. Her lab at Depaul University, Lab for Urban Forestry in the Anthropocene (LUFA) works with the urban greening community on applied research with an objective to advance sustainability science and inform stewardship of urban forests and greenspaces.

In 2017, Jess published a conceptual paper, "Urban forests in the Anthropocene: The responsibility of urban forestry in meeting global sustainability challenges"  outlining urban forestry’s responsibility for contributing to a more sustainable world (see image below) in light of the challenges faced by human society in the Anthropocene. The paper developed from a talk she was invited to give at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., by Casey Trees in 2015 (see listing of conference presentation below).