As mentioned in the previous post, Jill Jonnes’s heralded 2016 book, Urban ForestsA Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape, is a key resource for educating and inspiring ourselves, our fellow citizens, and our legislators as we seek to protect our urban forests. Here’s a review.

Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Landscape by Jill Jonnes 

Reviewed by Allison Craig, BioForest Urban Forest Health Specialist 

Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Landscape published by Viking Press (2016) is a wonderful read for anyone wanting to travel back in time and immerse themselves in the journey of urban forestry in America. Jonnes takes the reader on a nostalgic and well-thought out tour of iconic urban American trees and landscapes, telling stories of nineteenth-century New York City streets once lined with the exotic and vigorous tree-of-heaven, Washington, D.C.’s love affair with flowering Japanese cherry trees, the lamentable nation-wide decline of the great American chestnut, the death and re-birth of the stately American elm from suburban roadways, and the marvelous recovery of the striking dawn redwood from the depths of China’s forests.

Contemporarily, she recounts the environmental, economic, and emotional strains of the relevant and on-going battles with invasive Asian beetles, highlighting the havoc wreaked by the Asian longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer to date in America. Her retellings of the original detections and realization of the implications of these pests accurately summarize and reflect a collective feeling of dread, shock, and unease that anyone who has dealt with these beetles has surely experienced. 

Historical and influential tree champions such as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, J. Sterling Morton (founder of Arbor Day), Charles Sprague Sargent (the creator of America’s first “tree museum,” Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum), and John Davey (“tree doctor” and founder of the Davey Tree Expert Company) are seamlessly woven into the narration, their contributions often enhanced with quotes derived from original correspondence or dialogue. The works of modern day tree advocates like USFS scientists Greg McPherson and Dave Nowak, Washington’s Casey Trees, NYC Mayor Bloomberg, and Bette Midler are relayed with inspirational undertones. There is great emphasis on the importance of continuing to advance the field of urban forestry in order to bring balance to our increasingly urban environments. Jonnes points to politicians and city managers as current key catalysts for urban forestry, possessing the power to make a meaningful difference in the way trees are factored into urban planning and design.

There are few photographs and illustrations in this book, but Jonnes’s elegant and descriptive writing style elevates trees to revered entities and urban forests to transformational locales, conjuring images of natural beauty, healing, respite and positive change—no pictures necessary.