What is an Urban Forest?
An urban forest is essentially the collection of trees, plants, and vegetation found along a city’s streets, within parks, and in the built environment. In a broader sense, it may include any kind of woody plant vegetation growing in and around human settlements (see Wikipedia). As the San Francisco Urban Forest Plan points out, the “concept of an ‘urban forest’ allows us to think holistically about the trees and vegetation within a city, quantify their benefits, and manage this resource for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” Urban forestry is the thoughtful and comprehensive care and management of tree populations in urban settings for the purpose of improving the environment and the quality of life for those who work, live, and/or play in cities.
What are the Benefits of Urban Forests and Trees?
The benefits of urban forests and trees are numerous and well-documented. Specifically, urban forests:
- Cool cities and save energy
- Improve air quality
- Strengthen quality of place and the local economy
- Reduce stormwater runoff
- Improve social connections
- Help promote smart growth
- Create walkable communities
For detailed explanations on the above benefits, please visit this page developed by the U.S. Forest Service. To better understand the benefits of urban forests in California, I suggest reviewing this graphic on the California ReLeaf website and information provided by the California Urban Forests Council.
How are Urban Forests addressed in the Community Parks and Recreation Plans?
Most parks and recreation master plans typically focus on the improvement of existing parks and the development of new parks at certain opportunity sites. In developing the outline for the Community Parks and Recreation Plans for six park-poor communities, we intentionally went beyond this traditional scope of work and the boundaries of existing parks by including analyses and recommendations on urban greening and urban forestry community-wide. While we certainly wanted to increase the number and acreage of parks in these communities, we also realized that: 1) the opportunities to do so are limited given the scarcity of available land and funding; and 2) our end goal is to improve the quality of life for residents, not just to create parks. To accomplish this goal, we needed to look at the communities in their entirety and seek to make all the neighborhoods (not just the parks) greener, more attractive, more shaded, more walkable, and safer.
The Community Parks and Recreation Plans offer an in-depth analysis of the urban forest both within existing County parks and throughout each of the communities. In order to better understand the existing urban forests, the Department applied for and received a CalFIRE grant to complete a tree inventory in all of the existing parks in the communities. Data from the inventory was used to create a database within a tool called iTrees Streets, which is a street tree management and analysis tool that uses tree inventory data to assign dollar values to energy savings, carbon monoxide reduction, air quality improvements, stormwater control, and property value increase. The tool is free and was developed by a team of researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, Davey Tree Service, and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). Each of the Community Parks and Recreation Plans contains the following information about trees in County parks: species composition, age composition, estimated benefits provided by the trees in dollar value, the general condition of the trees, necessary maintenance, and potential conflicts with existing infrastructure. Using LIDAR data, we were also able to determine the overall tree canopy coverage (inside and outside of parks) in the six communities, including both publicly and privately maintained trees. Although this method does not allow for the assessment of each individual tree, it provides a clear picture of the total tree canopy coverage and reveals the areas that are well-planted as well as areas where new plantings may be necessary. Thus, using the inventory information and GIS-based analysis of overall tree canopy coverage, the Community Parks and Recreation Plans were able to comprehensively identify the unique urban forest needs in each of the six communities.
Extensive outreach was also completed in order to seek community input to develop the plans. Specifically, input was provided regarding desired locations for street trees throughout neighborhoods as well as the desired tree canopy and species in the existing and proposed parks. Each plan contains a section addressing the urban forest, and includes strategies for enhancing the urban forest not only in the parks, but along key corridors, as part of pocket forests, and on freeway buffer sites. Although many residents were excited about the aesthetic and environmental benefits of new trees, some were also concerned about public safety and how the introduction of new trees might limit views and provide hiding spaces for illicit activity. The plans took into consideration these concerns by helping residents pick trees that would provide environmental benefits, while acknowledging public safety concerns and recommending trees with high branching patterns, minimal leaf litter, and faster growth rates. Conversations with community members and recommendations of the plans make these communities poised and ready for the expansion of their urban forests.
Urban forests clearly matter. We must continue to increase existing tree canopy coverage in communities, especially those that are park poor and underserved, by creating green streets that encourage people to walk and exercise, establishing buffers from adjacent freeways and industrial uses, and focusing on multi-benefit greening opportunities. Within existing parks, we must also increase the canopy coverage, while maintaining visibility and preserving existing park uses. By expanding the tree canopy coverage both within and outside of parks, we will be able to maximize the environmental, social, economic, and other benefits associated with urban forests, thereby enhancing the quality of life and public health for community residents.
Note: Special thanks to all of the community members who offered valuable input through the community outreach process, other DPR staff, and consultants from PlaceWorks, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, and From Lot to Spot who worked diligently on the Community Parks and Recreation Plans.
All graphics shown above were prepared by PlaceWorks.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.