The role of public works in the urban forest

Megan Zadecky
Communications Manager
APWA Washington Office

Few people will deny that street trees and urban park space are aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable. Many individuals may not be aware, however, of the tangible benefits such as increased energy savings and stormwater management that the beautiful urban forests provide. In many communities across the country public works departments manage urban forests. The oversight of public works professionals is directly connected in these cases to the benefits that communities are enjoying from their tree cover.

In response to the needs of public works professionals managing urban forestry activities, APWA sponsors Click, Listen & Learn programs and sessions at the National Congress highlighting urban forestry issues as they relate to public works. As a follow-up to the urban forestry discussions and educational offerings that are taking place within the association, we sat down to talk with Mark Buscaino*, Director of the Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) Program. The UCF Program is part of the U.S. Forest Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mark Buscaino (photo credit: USDA Forest Service)

An Urban Forester who has worked in public works departments, Mark shares his views on the relationship between public works and urban trees. He is excited about APWA's interest in urban forestry issues and details for us the programs in his office and the resources available for public works departments that are interested in engaging in urban forestry issues.

What is the origin of the term "urban and community forestry"? The term came about in the mid-1960s from attempts to define a specialized branch of forestry in urban areas to include not only street trees, but all of the green space that makes up the urban forest including park land, private green space, and yards. The objective of urban and community forestry is the management and cultivation of trees for their present and potential contributions to the physiological, economical and sociological well-being of urban society.

Would you provide some background on the Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) Program and explain to us how the program started? The program originated in the early 1970s in response to the manifestation and spread of Dutch elm disease occurring throughout the mid-1960s and early-1970s. At the time, the elm was the premiere tree widely planted due to its rapid growth and resistance to urban stresses. The monoculture created with the elm tree was jeopardized when the fungus came from Europe and began affecting our trees. An initial $1 million in program funding was used to provide states with technical assistance on slowing the spread of and preventing further infestation of the disease. After about two decades of level funding not exceeding $2 million, groups were formed to increase people's awareness of the importance of urban and community forestry issues. Through the support of President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush and grassroots community efforts throughout the country, the program was expanded in 1992 to about $20 million. The expanded two-tiered delivery program provides funds for national and state efforts. Included among these programs is a national UCF conference held every two years and funding for all 50 states and 9 entities to support their assistance to communities.

Please talk to our readers more specifically about the mission and goal of the UCF Program and tell us briefly about the work that is currently happening. I will discuss the UCF in terms of the USDA Forest Service's mission, which is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forest and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Housed in the deputy department of State and Private Forestry, the UCF is charged with improving the condition and extent of community forests in urban, suburban and rural areas nationwide. Our program focuses on helping communities develop forest management plans that make sense based on our knowledge that an increased and healthier tree canopy leads to the realization of other benefits. We assist communities improve the condition and extent of their community forests through technical, financial, educational and research services. We encourage communities to allocate resources in the urban forest now as it will be a long-term economic investment with positive outcomes for the community.

You have mentioned the benefits of trees beyond mere aesthetics; would you outline the environmental, economic and social benefits and share with us examples of the realization of these benefits? One of the positive impacts of trees is better air quality. Trees remove particulate matter from the atmosphere. Particulate matter leads to increased asthma rates and other breathing complications. An increased volume of trees with an ample surface area to pick up the particulates has significant benefits on improving the quality of air that we breathe. Trees also have a cooling effect in urban areas that reduce the negative impacts of heat islands and reduce the ozone. Another notable function of trees is their role in stormwater management. The peak and flow of rainwater slows as the water hits the tree leaves. The slowing of water assists in mitigating stormwater. While retention basins are still necessary, especially if you have rain and snowfall when there is no tree cover, the tree cover helps tremendously. Additionally, trees transpire and release water from the ground stocks that are charged by rainfall, which in turn cools the air.

As for the economic benefits, empirical studies have found that trees placed around homes, whether they are on the property or planted near the property, are likely to increase the sale value of those homes by approximately 7-10 percent. These studies also found that community centers and businesses with trees planted in and around the area were more favorable to retail shoppers and others. Trees directly impact energy savings, which also have direct economic benefits. If an air conditioning condenser unit is shaded during the day, then the amount of energy used by the condenser will decrease. When trees shade homes from the summer sun, the need for cooling these homes is reduced.

The social benefits associated with increased tree cover include reduced crime, as well as reduced stress. From my personal experience the reduction of stress is a matter of common sense. As a former resident of New York City, I remember feeling the difference in the environment and in my body when walking from a hardscape into Central Park.

I am convinced that as research continues we will uncover more benefits directly attributed to the urban forest.

What do you believe is an appropriate role for the public works constituency in developing and maintaining the urban forest? Being an old-time city forester working in public works departments, I see this role as being several-fold as public works departments throughout the country are a central point in terms of community forestry. Many arborists and urban foresters are housed in public works departments because this is where the pruning and removal crews are based. If the public works department hires a forester/arborist, then this person should be there as a resource for community residents to inform them of the benefits of trees. Additionally, public works departments interface with planning departments in connection with land use, development and infrastructure and can advise and ensure that planning departments follow through with their plans for trees, as well as to ensure that builders and developers only clear trees that are permitted for clearing. The public works community is a key constituent of the UCF Department, so we are interested in building a relationship with APWA. Public works departments throughout the country can provide resources such as better informing the community, working with other groups interested in trees, as well as crafting and enforcing ordinances that relate to trees.

Would you outline the resources that are currently available for public works professionals who want to engage in urban forestry issues? I would encourage public works departments to talk to their state foresters about grant money that is available for localities. I would also encourage public works professionals to contact and collaborate with other groups with whom they share a mutual interest on this issue. Some of these groups may include the Society of Municipal Arborists, International Society of Arboriculture, and the Alliance for Community Trees. I will mention that the SMA represents arborists employed in public works departments throughout the country, so there may be some overlap in membership between APWA and SMA. The state forestry coordinator will know all of the relevant groups who are active within individual states. Another resource may be local businesses in your city, as they often help out in getting urban forestry issues underway in communities.

The following are two web resources that provide more information about urban and community forestry: http://www.treelink.org/ and www.fs.fed.us/ucf/.

The Urban and Community Forestry Program office can be reached at (202) 205-1054. Megan Zadecky can be reached in APWA's Washington Office at (202) 218-6712.

* Originally from New Jersey, Mark Buscaino received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Maine and his Master of Science degree in Forest Resources Management and Silviculture from the State University of New York. He is a Certified Arborist through the International Society of Arboriculture, and a member of the Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA). Prior to joining the Forest Service in December 2002, Mark was the Chief and State Forester for the District Department of Transportation/Urban Forestry Administration for the District of Columbia. Mark currently serves as the National Director of Urban and Community Forestry for the Forest Service, and is stationed in Washington, D.C.