Speaking for the Trees: The New Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Tree1To be a tree in the city is very hard.  A tree that would live 80 years in the forest has a life expectancy of 20 years in the suburbs, and less than that in an urban setting where trees are often planted in sidewalk cutouts. Let’s face it; even if a tree gets planted correctly and watered, it faces a host of other environmental and human challenges ranging from storms, insects, air pollution, and low-quality soil to road salt and reckless drivers.

Thanks to the National Urban and Community Advisory Council (NUCFAC) and their newly released 10-year Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan, there is a clear outline of all the reasons we should nurture our urban trees. I recently spoke with Liam Kavanagh, NUCFAC’s Plan Chair and New York City’s First Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Parks and Recreation, about the plan’s goals. 

What are the accomplishments from the last plan?

The good news is that we grew urban forestry plans and advocates by huge numbers. The number of communities with urban forestry plans rose by 70%; the majority of states now have urban forestry plans, and community tree policies and ordinances have increased by 58%.

How is the new plan different from the last plan put in place a decade ago?

Even with the jump in new plans, less than half of America lives in communities with programs to plant and maintain their urban forest. With a $2.4 trillion structural value delivering $17 billion in annual benefits, the urban forest remains an underappreciated asset. The new plan recommends increasing the annual investment in urban and community forestry to $85 million.

Tree 2And the new plan understands NUCFAC’s limitations – it wasn’t set up to deliver services.  This time we consciously reached out to local governments, forestry advocacy groups and others who can take on specific aspects of the plan and make advances. Like city parks, urban forests perform a wide set of services; the new plan argues that we need more policies that include community forestry as a core tool to address emerging challenges around public health, climate change, storm water management and clean air.

We hope to link trees to good community development practices, such as new urbanism, smart growth, low-impact and conservation development, walkable neighborhoods, multi-modal transportation systems, and transit-oriented development, while also ensuring that tree maintenance is enforced.

Another new thing about the plan is a larger focus on health – reducing stress, promoting healing, better attention, academic performance.  We are hoping people in the medical field will further appreciate and focus on the value of nature to health outcomes.

Lastly, we’re well aware of the importance of diversity and equity in implementing the plan.  It’s important for this work to be relevant and sustainable and we’re working hard to make wider connections.

What kind of research is in the works that can be a game changer for urban forestry? 

The I-Tree Suite is rapidly evolving into a robust tool for cities. Last year at the Partners in Community Forestry Conference, Dave Nowak presented 2 new suites – landscape and ecosystem – making the tool even more useful for understanding the economic value of the services that trees perform.  I-Tree is growing in sophistication and becoming more broadly accepted; we believe it will drive appreciation and understanding of how investments can pay off.

The human health angle is especially important in this plan with huge annual spending and broad impacts.  The USFS is doing a lot of research here but we need to reach out and partner better with health care organizations, and get them to look at things like parks and trees as an opportunity where they can get a return on their investment while making people healthier.

Who makes up the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council and how will they track implementation of the plan? 

Congress created NUCFA in 1990 to develop an Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan every ten years, evaluate results and develop criteria for the USDA Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Challenge Cost Share Grant Program.

Our members are drawn from a broad sector of public life and urban and community forestry professionals with representation from different sizes and types of cities.  I was on the team representing City Parks Alliance.  The council membership tries to capture a broad spectrum of interest and opportunity to communicate about forestry.  We create events and use membership to highlight the plan and how to implement it at the local scale.  We’re not allowed to lobby or request funding.  Our role is to make information available and demonstrate return on investment.  It’s a powerful case and NUCFAC is trying to raise the profile.

We are working closely with the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition – a network of organizations that range from traditional forestry groups to planning, architecture and health organizations.  It is a young but diverse group we are supporting to help promote the plan.  They are not in a position as an umbrella group to manage things directly but they can be a convener for promoting the goals outlined in the plan.  It’s a very interesting opportunity for the plan.

What is the available annual grant funding for the program?

About $900,000 is available annually, tied to goals in the plan.  We’re looking for projects and proposals to advance research and practice. For example, part of the plan has to do with the economic benefits of environmental services.  We’re hoping our next round of grants will get at this.  We believe that being able to monetize those services will be key to increasing funding. (Note: The deadline for 2017 proposals has passed.)

Tree 3How can city park managers and park partners use the plan? 

Become part of the campaign.  It’s hard to think about a park without trees.  Trees distinguish a park and it’s one of the reasons why people value parks.  If you look at the interrelations, there is a lot of crossover between urban forestry advocates and park advocates.  If we build support for trees, we build support for parks, too.

On the NUCFAC website you can view the plan; we’re hoping through partnerships to build online resources in support of our goals. One of our first goals is to create a nationwide urban forestry public awareness and education campaign that will expand awareness – and increase investment.  We’re consciously promoting the plan to those interested in quality of life in their city.