For those of us who are tree-lovers, we know trees do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to making our urban environments more livable. There is growing recognition of their importance, which can be seen by looking at the number of cities that are including urban green spaces—including urban forests and parks—in their city climate action plans. What is less well understood is how equally we all share in those benefits.
I first realized there would be serious social impacts on communities in the wake of emerald ash borer while working as part of Colorado’s Emerald Ash Borer Response Team. While the team toured infested areas in the City of Boulder, we were all left wondering what residents on a limited budget, or cities without adequate resources to treat or remove trees, were going to do when trees began to die in large numbers. It was troubling to think about the implications of losing several large, mature ash trees in neighborhoods with vulnerable populations or those dominated by rental properties.
During this time, a chance encounter with a social scientist who studies the social impacts of invasive species for the UK Forestry Commission (the equivalent of our US Forest Service) inspired me to head back to graduate school for a degree in sociology. Since then, I’ve become more interested in how cities are planning for increasingly severe weather conditions using what are known as nature-based solutions, such as relying upon urban trees to counter the urban heat island effect, remove pollution from the air, or to capture stormwater.
Many have heard of the term “ecosystem services”. These are simply the benefits provided to people by the natural environment. The i-Tree software developed by researchers at the US Forest Service was a game-changer for calculating these benefits provided by trees in cities. In fact, you can do this right now for the tree outside your window by using the National Tree Benefits Calculator based on the i-Tree software. We know how important trees are, but how can we make sure everyone benefits equally from the ecosystem services provided by trees and parks, and how can those of us who support green spaces in our communities make that happen? Below are some ideas to do just that.
Engaging the next generation of green professionals and stewards. Many of us learned to love gardening and natural areas because we were introduced to the natural world by a family member or mentor. Cheesy song reference aside, children are quite literally our future. They will continue to work on the wicked environmental problems we are tackling today. We can ensure there are many future scientists, natural resource professionals, horticulturists, and plant nerds by engaging youth in nature-related activities. A study by Balcarczyk et al. (2015) in the Journal of Forestry found that underrepresented groups, such as women and minorities, perceived more barriers than White males to entering natural resources careers. Some of those barriers included lack of knowledge about natural resources careers, lack of field experience needed to get a job in a natural resources field, and lack of support from families or others in their social networks when choosing a natural resources-related career.
Why does diversity in these fields matter? Research has repeatedly shown that diverse groups working on complex problems (such as wicked problems) produce more innovative results. For instance, Cooke and Kemeny (2017) showed that when it comes to complex problem solving, teams with more culturally diverse members were more innovative. In addition, Wagner and Jonkers (2017) found that countries that foster open, collaborative science produce more impactful scientific papers (meaning they are more widely cited, and thus more influential). Lastly, Nielsen et al. (2017) conclude that gender diversity in science simply makes for better science (an effect they call the “innovation dividend”).
Being a mentor to a young person, especially a young person from a traditionally underrepresented group, and introducing them to the reasons you love natural spaces can foster the diversity in STEM fields we need to solve tough environmental problems in the future.
Get involved in neighborhood landscaping initiatives. Managing landscapes sustainably means making sure resources going to community-managed landscapes are used to grow healthy, long-lived trees and turf areas that benefit all community members, especially the elderly and other underserved groups that are most impacted by heat waves and least likely to have access to these beneficial spaces.
We could even ask ourselves whether green solutions are best for a location. There is a lot of wisdom in the idea of “right plant, right place”. It can easily cost $500 to plant a single tree. Spending money on a shade structure for a particularly inhospitable area may be a better solution than replacing trees year after year, and those trees may provide more benefit somewhere else.
If you are a plant-lover and interested in educating folks on science-based ways to manage landscapes more sustainably (which is probably why you’re reading this blog), consider taking that passion and knowledge to your local HOA board, community neighborhood association, or other group involved in green space management.
Linking urban green space and community well-being initiatives. If you are not particularly plant-savvy, there are other areas that touch equity and green space. One rapidly growing area of interest is the link between public green space and human health. There is a huge amount of scientific research linking green space to increased physical and mental health, faster healing times post-surgery, greater community resilience, and many more benefits. Because of this linkage, and the fact that there are clear disparities in access, equitable access to urban green space is often considered an issue of social and environmental justice. This research summary from the US Forest Service provides a good overview of the health benefits provided by urban green spaces. If you volunteer or work for a community development group of any kind, there may be a way to connect that work to urban green space benefits.
Ask who is missing and why. Besides getting involved yourself, take a look around and ask who is missing from decision making about community landscapes. How can we make spaces feel more inclusive? How can we engage youth in outdoor education and as environmental leaders? How can we engage community members other than the “usual suspects” in making decisions about communal green spaces? (See the section above about diversity and innovation for the reasons why this is a great idea.)
Something I have learned to appreciate more is the power of story and the importance of listening to the diverse stories and experiences of people. Recently I had the privilege of speaking to Curtis Bennett, Director of Equity and Community Engagement at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion guru for the Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition, as part of a case study project. The GBWC is working on several initiatives to create more equitable nature-based solutions—such as creating urban green spaces in underserved communities—to build community resilience to climate change. Bennett is a wildlife conservation biologist by training and, like me, has only recently begun to work on natural resources from a social perspective. One of the many memorable take-aways from my conversation with Bennett is to recognize that people are experts in their own lives.
Asking why there isn’t a more diverse set of people involved in these discussions can reveal powerful explanations and uncover reasons for patterns of inequity in access to green space benefits. Storm damaged trees, something we have all experienced in Front Range communities, may be seen as a hazard. For this reason, homeowners may remove perfectly healthy trees according to a study by Conway and Yip (2016).
In Detroit, researchers found that people’s lived experiences in the city, including a long history of racism against African American residents, led to distrust of city government and tree planting non-profit organizations. This distrust caused people to opt out of city tree planting initiatives in the neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to heat island effect and pollution. The same study also found that maintenance responsibilities that fall upon residents after trees are planted by the city further discouraged residents from taking part in planting programs. Residents in these neighborhoods were not invited to take part in discussions about the implementation of planting programs and, as a result, a host of misunderstandings occurred. Those of us involved in greening initiatives should all take the time to listen to people’s stories about what they value in a landscape, and why they may not support greening efforts. Which brings me to my last suggestion.
Relevancy is relative. US Forest Service researchers have long recognized that urban forest practitioners and city residents speak two different languages about trees, and to have successful urban forestry programs, both views must be considered. Why we benefit from nature differs for everyone, so it is important to respect everyone’s values for a proposed green space or tree planting initiative. Talk to everyone who has a stake in that space and how they perceive its benefits and costs. This can mean the difference between a thriving green space initiative and one resulting in frustrating misunderstandings, lots of dead plants, and underused spaces. Green et al. (2015) make a compelling case for accepting a diversity of views in conservation work. (And our very own Drs. O’Connor and Koski have taught us that a tree nerd and a turfie can team up for healthier trees and turf.) For an inspiring look at why cultural diversity is good for biodiversity, check out this TEDxCSU talk by Michael Gavin, CSU Associate Professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources.