Trees are key to healthier, happier communities; however, I was recently reminded during a focus group that many people know surprisingly little about urban and community forestry. Not only had the participants never met an urban forester, they even expressed distrust about the term "urban forest" because it sounds like an oxymoron.
What is an urban forest?
Urban forests are the trees and associated features where we live, work and play. It includes the soil, water, air, open spaces, roads, buildings, wildlife, microbes and us—yes, people are an integral part of our urban forests.
Please don't think that urban and community forests only exist in large cities. In Texas, urban foresters work with communities of all sizes from large metropolitan areas, like Houston, to smaller, tight-knit towns, like Buffalo Gap (population: 463). We help communities develop sustainable programs for healthy trees and forests.
Just like having a public works director, fire chief and city attorney, I think all communities should have an urban forester. For example, the city of Austin, Texas, alone has 33 million trees, valued at roughly $16 billion dollars. We need professionals to manage this valuable asset—and urban foresters are those professionals.
What do urban foresters do?
Trees are important to the work of an urban forester. We oversee the day-to-day operations that affect our trees. Like all foresters, we develop plans that cover tree risk management, planting programs, storm and emergency response, forest health management and ongoing maintenance.
People are important to the work of an urban forester. We work with communities to develop tree-related ordinances—making sure that we're doing our jobs in the way that each community wants and best serving their respective needs.
Numbers are important to the work of an urban forester. Like roads, libraries and other city services, urban foresters must compete for limited resources. That which gets counted gets managed. Knowing the health of the trees in a community helps elected officials and community leaders make wise decisions about their urban forestry programs. To provide that information, and to help make a case for a portion of those funds, we inventory the trees in a community. We find out what species of trees we have, their respective condition and health, and what we need to do to make our public spaces for trees (like roads and parks) are safe.
This is the work of an urban forester. My name is Paul Johnson, and I am an urban forester.
Need more tips on how your community can develop an effective urban and community forestry program? Contact your state forestry agency to learn about the many great resources available in your area. Also, check out my weekly podcast, Trees Are Key, for tips on tree care, arboriculture and urban forestry.