Baltimore Emerges as USFS Template for Restoring Urban Canopy

By Laura Petersen
Baltimore, MD (August 4, 2011)- Riding along portions of Fulton Avenue in west Baltimore, this city’s continued population and economic decline is on depressing display. Roughly 16,000 of the city’s housing units are vacant or abandoned, leaving a streetscape of boarded-up rowhouses interspersed with downtrodden businesses and shabby vacant lots. But where some see the irreversible decline of another inner-city American neighborhood- a process replicated in dozens of cities across the country- others see opportunity to create an urban oasis that is healthy, attractive and sustainable in the face of a changing climate.

Their vision is centered around green infrastructure — lush trees shading homes and sidewalks, landscaped corridors linking neighborhoods, and parks providing open spaces for residents to gather. “We have an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do land-use planning with an environmental focus,” said Beth Strommen, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, a city agency.
Helping the city achieve that vision is an unlikely ally — the U.S. Forest Service. Best known for its management of the nation’s vast natural forests, the federal agency is hardly recognized for its efforts to expand the urban canopy in 7,000 communities around the country.
Baltimore is a kind of frontier for the Forest Service’s urban mission, as the city is home to one of just a handful of urban-based Forest Service research stations. Scientists at the Baltimore Field Station, housed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, help advance the city’s greening efforts by collecting and analyzing data that shows the environmental and human health benefits of urban forests and other green infrastructure.
For example, researchers were able to show that the city’s forested areas absorb more greenhouse gases and have lower air pollution rates and temperatures than many residential areas. They also mapped the city’s soil carbon, and found that more carbon is stored per unit in forested areas than developed areas. City officials say they lack the capacity and resources to do these sorts of studies, which can help show land managers the downsides of allowing more forested areas to be developed, or the upside of planting more trees in residential areas.
“[Baltimore Field Station] data helps guide our decisions so they are better informed,” Strommen said. City leaders are more open than ever to sustainability and green programs, Strommen said, as evidenced by the city’s “TreeBaltimore” initiative to double the urban canopy by 2037. The program was launched in 2007 after a computer program developed by other Forest Service researchers, called i-Tree, showed the city’s 2.8 million trees were worth $3.4 billion.
However, that goal cannot be met on public lands alone. Ninety-eight percent of Baltimore real estate is privately owned, which means there are 280,000 potential forest owners, said Morgan Grove, the field station’s team leader. Grove’s research has focused on determining the sociological traits of property owners more likely to plant trees, which can then be used to tailor planting programs or marketing campaigns. He has also mapped locations where different groups want to focus planting efforts to help build consensus and support for such programs.
Unlike wealthier cities like New York, which spend millions of dollars on urban greening programs, cash-strapped cities like Baltimore must rely on federal and nonprofit partnerships. That’s where nonprofits like the Parks & People Foundation, whose mission statement is to make Baltimore not a “city with parks,” but a “city in a park,” come in.
The Forest Service’s scientists have worked closely with the foundation, providing vital monitoring data that show how the group’s efforts are making a real difference in environmental quality, said Jacqueline Carrera, president of the Parks & People Foundation. Early results from the monitoring show a marked decrease in pollution across a 930-acre “storm drainshed” where acres of impervious pavement have been replaced with grass and trees that soak up and filter stormwater.
The Forest Service also provided an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to the foundation, which allowed for the creation of 20 ecosystem restoration jobs citywide. “The Forest Service fingerprints are everywhere,” Carrera said.
Part of the reason the Forest Service’s Baltimore work has met such success is that the field office operates within a broader research collaboration called the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. The long-term monitoring study, ongoing since 1998, has made Baltimore’s watershed one of the most highly sampled and studied watersheds in the world.
Field station scientists are able to sift through large amounts of data to help city planners identify and apply solutions to otherwise hard-to-solve urban watershed problems. “The science is really client-focused,” said Beth Larry, the Forest Service’s national coordinator of urban research. “The work they do is driven by questions of the local decision makers.”
The Forest Service researchers also strive to share tools and programs developed and tested in Baltimore with other research stations around the country. The hope is that such tools can then be exported to places where the Forest Service has no presence.
With its formidable challenges to recreate its urban core in a sustainable way, Baltimore provides a fertile testing ground for the rest of the nation, explained Thomas Schmidt, assistant director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. “If we can do it in Baltimore,” Schmidt said, “we can do it anywhere.”
Related Resources:
E&E Land Letter- Baltimore Emerges as USFS Template for Restoring Urban Canopy
Parks & People Foundation
Baltimore Ecosystem Study
Tree Baltimore
US Forest Service Urban & Community Forestry
US Forest Service Northern Research Station