Public Works and Urban Forestry: Finding common ground

Jennifer Gulick
Project Manager
Davey Resource Group
Walton, Kentucky

When you go to the doctor's office, step into your computer technical support team's office, or even talk to anyone under the age of 16, do you ever wonder what language they are speaking? It sounds like English, but most of the words they use are not in your brain's dictionary.

What you are experiencing is what sociologists like to call a "communication gap." The communication gap generally happens when people of different backgrounds, ages, technical training, levels of education, and experiences try to talk to one another about their particular area of interest or expertise using their "culture's" jargon.

Communication gaps can be a source of amusement, like between people of different generations, but can be a serious issue in the case of a patient understanding their doctor's instructions.

In the realm of public works management, there is a perceived communication gap that, if not addressed properly and closed quickly, could potentially impact a community's safety, aesthetics, and livability. That gap is the communication rift between traditional public works managers and urban forestry professionals.

With a growing body of research documenting the economic and environmental benefits of "green" infrastructure, public works agencies are under pressure from various community constituencies to recognize the value of and dedicate resources to effectively manage urban forest resources. A common refrain among urban foresters and public works professionals is that they talk past each other. This disconnect often hinders the allocation of adequate resources for urban forestry and the advancement of proactive management programs.

A Little Background
Arboriculture, the study and management of trees, is an emerging science, and urban forestry is a growing management discipline in the municipal setting. For the professional urban forester or municipal arborist, there is a wealth of practical resources on program development and urban forest sustainability as well as a plethora of published literature on the science and care of individual trees, in an urban environment.

However, what appears to be lacking is both technical and managerial urban forestry information geared to public works managers who have responsibility for public trees, as well as other public infrastructure, facilities, and safety responsibilities. The traditional sources of information and education available to public works staff have not previously nor currently offer many resources and educational opportunities for better urban forestry management presented from a public works perspective or context. Thus, we have a communication gap.

The significance of this situation is that over 80% of governmental departments responsible for public tree care also had non-tree-related responsibilities. Clearly, a significant portion of urban forest management in the United States is being performed by public works managers and other non-arboricultural staff.

So, unless public works managers have been informed about the existing sources of urban forest management information or join local and national professional arboricultural organizations, then they will continue to manage without the benefit of this information.

A Solution
APWA, in partnership with the Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA) and Davey Resource Group (DRG), successfully obtained a 2006 Challenge Cost-Share Grant from the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council (NUCFAC) to fund a project to address this situation.

The grant project was designed to bridge the communication gap between arborists and public works professionals by creating a series of reports and an education campaign on urban forestry management designed specifically for senior public works staff. Recognizing that current urban forestry programming focuses on benefits and best management from the perspectives of arborists and citizen advocates, APWA knew that to effectively communicate to public works managers, "you must speak their language." Therefore, the project targeted senior-level public works managers through peer-based programming with the goal of enhancing communication between public works managers and urban foresters and promoting better management of the urban forest.

The Results
After an extensive literature review, interviews with public works managers and municipal arborists across the country, and guidance from a multi-disciplinary steering committee, it was clear that information on four key urban forestry program components was critical to get into the hands of public works managers. These four key components are: (1) Staffing; (2) Regulations and Policies; (3) Budgeting and Funding; and (4) Urban Forest Management Plans (see sidebar).

There was universal agreement that these components are key to creating and sustaining a proactive, comprehensive urban forest management program. And, within each of those program components are multiple, specific elements which can be described as best management practices (BMPs).

The BMPs were the focus of APWA's grant project educational efforts. The steering committee considered these as the most important to define, explain and encourage public works managers to incorporate into their urban forestry operations and administration.

APWA, SMA and DRG completed the project in the fall of 2007. The information was first presented during an APWA Click, Listen & Learn webcast in which more than 70 sites nationwide and an estimated 250 people participated. Then, a panel presentation was made at the 2007 APWA Congress in San Antonio, Texas. Attendees received printed booklets and a CD-ROM that contained valuable urban forest management information specifically designed for public works managers. The outreach continues through presentations made at local and regional APWA chapter meetings.

Whatever level your urban forestry program is at currently, and depending on where you want to go with it in the future, there are many sources of information and assistance at your disposal just for the asking. If you would like copies of APWA's urban forestry BMP reports, publications and other information, please visit the APWA website to download these documents.

The communication gap between public works managers and urban foresters and arborists must be narrowed or even closed. Trees on streets and on other publicly-owned properties managed by public works agencies provide a multitude of aesthetic and environmental benefits to citizens, businesses and visitors alike. Beyond shade and beauty, trees also have practical benefits and a real monetary value that cities sometimes are unaware of. Unlike other public infrastructure components, properly planted and maintained trees increase in value over time.

With timely and practical urban forest management information, a public works agency can objectively consider each specific issue and balance the service demand pressures with a knowledgeable understanding of trees and their needs. If this kind of balance is achieved, the community's beauty will flourish and the health and safety of its trees and citizens will be maintained.

Jennifer Gulick can be reached at (859) 384-8258 or

Key Urban Forest Management Components

I. Staffing

  • A proactive and comprehensive urban forest management program requires trained and dedicated staff to oversee management and operational activities.

  • Staff responsible for urban forest management should be professionally certified or have access to certified employees to assist in making operational and management decisions.

II. Regulations and Policies

  • Tree ordinances and clear urban forest management policies are the foundation of a sustainable program.

  • Such regulations and guiding principles establish the authority and accountability for tree management, set minimum standards for maintenance and planting, and can help protect and preserve the existing urban forest canopy.

III. Budgeting and Funding

  • With sufficient financial resources to secure professional services, equipment, and management, an urban forestry program can fulfill its mission, respond to change and challenges, and best serve the public.

  • The National Arbor Day Foundation believes an annual budget of at least $2 per capita is a minimum amount necessary to provide tree maintenance, planting and management services to the public. A common belief is that $5 per capita is more realistic.

IV. Management Plan

  • An Urban Forest Management Plan is an action plan; it gives public works agencies detailed information, recommendations, and resources needed to efficiently and proactively manage public trees.

  • The plan states what is needed to manage the urban forest and describes activities and services required to execute these responsibilities.

  • A plan based on a current tree inventory prescribes maintenance and planting actions, but also addresses risk reduction, storm response, citizen education, and urban forest values.