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Urban Forest Conservation is Primarily a Social Endeavor

Urban forest conservation is primarily a social endeavor. The practice of arboriculture and urban forestry takes place in a value laden context. Science and technology represent the tools by which we carve out these social values within the urban landscape.

When we use the phrase urban forest, we imply that there exist dynamic relationships between dense built infrastructure, human society and the elements of forests, namely the trees, plants, animals, soil and water. These relationships shift with the changing values of individual residents, economies and the prevailing norms of public society. Working across property boundaries for a common conservation outcome, such as watershed protection and wildlife habitat, is at best difficult.  At times the needed cooperation for successful management of our dispersed urban forest seems impossible to attain. This is compounded by problems arising from the lack of planning for enough open space to support trees and vegetation, particularly within the public realm.

Urban forest conservation in the United States is a continuous conversation between societal values and our scientific understanding of tree biology and forest ecology. Most urban management programs today lag well behind our ecological understanding of the important values of trees and forests in our metropolitan regions. Society continues to make misinformed and reckless mistakes that lead to the loss of the trees, woodlands and forests and the benefits they provide to human society.

Our professions need an ethic that goes beyond client relationships. We need to not only address private owner needs, or the public infrastructure and tree conflicts within our older urban areas, but actively engage in creating next generation urban forests.  We need to be concerned with what is good for individuals and what is needed by society. The ethic will require an ecosystem approach and strategies that rely on disciplines and sectors outside of arboriculture and urban forestry such as medicine and health, socio-ecological sciences, and urban and transport planning.

All along the urban fringe, open land and forests are continuing to be converted to urban land. We can cannot afford to use the same approach to urban design that has led us to the gray, dense and unhealthy conditions we are seeing today. This older paradigm of the ‘sanitary city’ was developed in the 19th century before most societies recognized the value and ultimate need of the urban forest and vegetation. It is the time to lay the corner stone for green infrastructure systems. It is time for a systematic and transdisciplinary approach to the conservation and management of trees, woodlands and forests within our urban zones.

The well-being of urban society is dependent on responsible urban forest management that places the highest priority on the maintenance and enhancement of the entire urban ecosystem. Practices and programs that are ecologically, economically and socially responsible are needed to sustain the integrity of urban forest ecosystems and the human communities dependent upon them.

We need to actively seek opportunities to participate in and at times lead in the creation of new urbanization, regional watershed plans, park systems, and natural areas. This is more than simply doing our job. It is the ethical responsibility of both the arboriculture and urban forestry professions.