Creating More Equitable Urban Forests by Understanding and Responding to Historical Trauma
By Christine E. Carmichael, Ph.D., Founder and Principal, Fair Forests Consulting, LLC
For the last couple of decades, research documenting inequitable urban forest coverage by race and income in the United States has grown. Far from being an issue relegated to one city or region in the U.S., it is now clear that whiter and wealthier neighborhoods across the country have more tree canopy coverage than neighborhoods with predominately non-white residents and those with lower median income.
Georgia Silvera Seamans is the co-founding director of Washington Square Park Eco Projects in New York City. She is an urban forester, independent researcher, and writer. Georgia has bylines with UrbanOmnibus.net, Audubon.org, and Audubon Magazine, and her research has been published in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening and the former Journal of Arboriculture. Georgia blogs about urban nature atlocalecologist.org. She holds degrees from Wesleyan University, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and UC Berkeley.
Could you share about your NYC roots and your connection to Washington Square Park in particular?
Georgia Silvera Seamans: When my family emigrated to the U.S., the first place we landed was Washington Heights. I attended junior high and high school in NYC. I used to visit the Village as a teenager; the vintage shops on West 8th Street were fun to explore! I recall one visit to Washington Square Park during that time. The Park struck me as a dynamic and diverse place. As an adult I moved back to the City in 2009. I live a few blocks from the Park, within a 10-minute walk.
How did you come to urban forestry, and what have been some of your peak experiences along the way? Could you talk about your urban forestry research and writing?
GSS: I became an urban forester because of my job as a paid community forestry intern with the Urban Resources Initiative in New Haven, Connecticut. This practical experience more than any academic training set me on the urban forestry path. I was an intern in the organization’s Community Greenspace program where I provided technical resources to seven community groups in the Newhallville neighborhoods.
The projects undertaken by the groups I worked with ranged from planting street trees on a block to converting an abandoned house lot into a bird sanctuary. I can honestly say that but for this rigorous and fun experience I would not have applied to and been offered the job as urban forester for the City of Boston.
I returned to graduate school after working for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department for a few years. At UC Berkeley, my dissertation research was focused on how and why municipal agencies and nonprofits were reframing trees as ecological agents versus the conventional aesthetic narrative. I am proud of my first authored paper based on my dissertation which was published in 2013 in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.
Last week was one of 90+ degree days. Trees are in desperate need of water and rain gardens are in need of love. This past week, I worked on the Green Infrastructure crew led by Taj Martin and Meqdad Ali. We hit several rain gardens in Syracuse, including the garden at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Comfort Tyler Park, and Percy Hughes Elementary School.
Generally, urban greenspace maintenance is collecting any trash from the site and removing unwanted plants that may compete with the species of plants that were deliberately planted. Rain gardens are a depressed area in the landscape that collects rain water and allows it to soak into the ground. Planted with grasses and flowering perennials, they are a beautiful way to reduce runoff!
All of the weed plants we remove are recorded as volume of cubic yards. This information is then inputted into a report that gets sent to Onondaga County and is used to monitor the health of rain gardens all across the City of Syracuse.
Iowa-based Trees Forever has done some socially-distanced planting events this spring, and in this webinar they share what has worked for them, what to consider, and ways to make it work. They walk through some great tips as well as the online-survey they’re using to manage volunteers signing up for shifts to plant. These guidelines are included in the Trees Forever webinar and will be a great resource for ReLeaf Committee members and partners hoping to plan some fall planting events. —Christina McLaughlin, NYSDEC Urban & Community Partnership Coordinator
All Photos Courtesy James Kaechele & Fruit Tree Planting Foundation
What skills does an urban forester use when planting trees on disturbed land along an Amazon River tributary? “All of them,” says New York Tree Trust Director and Council Executive Committee Member James Kaechele. In early December, 2019, Kaechele, also a consulting arborist for the Pittsburgh-based international charity Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF), went with a team of staff and volunteers to the Loreta Region of Peru to plant 6,000 fruit trees in five Amazon River communities.
“As urban foresters, our job is equal parts plants and people,” Kaechele says. “We’re uniquely positioned to coordinate both the arboricultural and human aspects of a project like this. The land-use questions are the same; the site assessment process is the same; tree planting techniques are the same; you have to address any concerns people have—for example, the worry that some have about whether a tree will fall on their house—it’s the same skills that I use in the work I do with street trees and residents in NYC.” Furthermore, the land along the Amazon River is often severely degraded and in need of restoration, just like in the tree beds, parks, and natural areas of NYC—just degraded for different reasons.
Like so many regions in New York, nearly every corner of Missouri has been hit hard with the invasive spread of Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana spp.). Callery pears are self-sterile, but it turns out they readily cross-pollinate with other cultivars. Also, the rootstock upon which a Bradford pear is grafted will sometimes sprout, eventually yielding flowers and viable pollen.
Fortunately, Missourians are often out in front with innovative approaches to urban forestry and invasive plant control. Here’s how they reduced the number of Callery pears and increased the use of native, non-invasive trees. Special thanks to Tina Casagrand of the Missouri Invasive Plant Task Force (MoIP) for her help with this post.
Watertown’s 2019 Annual Fall Volunteer Tree Planting Project attracted more than 60 volunteers (many from Tree Watertown) to plant 28 bare root trees. The volunteer tree planting project was paid for in part by a $3000 grant from the Northern New York Community Foundation, which paid for the purchase of trees and planting supplies.
In March 2019, the Natural Areas Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and Yale School for Forestry and Environmental Studies released “Untapped Common Ground: The Care of Forested Natural Areas in American Cities.” This report is based on a survey of 125 organizations in 110 cities and how they manage their forests.
There’s a lot more nature in cities than people think! Urban natural areas represent 1.7 million acres but often don’t receive the investment, recognition, or care they deserve.
Urban forested natural areas can be a tool to achieve cities’ resiliency, climate change, and public health goals. More Americans are moving into cities, and for many, these places represent their best access to nature. The time to invest in urban nature is now.
The Natural Areas Conservancy and its partners will convene representatives from a select number of cities from across the country for workshops in fall 2019. Next year, they’ll publish case studies on how cities manage their forest natural areas. Check this page for updates on the project.
What are Urban Forested Natural Areas?
The term “urban forest” refers to all trees within a city including street trees, landscaped trees, private property, and forested natural areas. Forested natural areas are distinct from street and park trees in their size, biodiversity, and how they’re managed. They are important native habitats, and are the “woods” in cities.