Finding the Urban Forest in Your Neck of the Woods

By Laurie Casey

Chicago, IL (March 23, 2012)- When people ask you where you live, what do you say? The city? The ‘burbs? Borrrring! Tell them you live in a forest, and that they do, too.

It’s called an “urban forest.” As opposed to a national forest or managed timber forest, the urban forest is where people live and work, said Bob Fahey, forest ecologist at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. “Our urban forest includes residential yards, public parks and forest preserves, green space along Metra tracks and highways, as well as shopping malls and corporate office parks,” he said.

Boasting millions of trees, other plants, and wildlife, the urban forest contributes valuable benefits. It produces fresh oxygen, reduces urban heat island effects, and stores carbon. Studies show being around or seeing trees even improves our mood and helps us heal from surgery faster. “The urban forest contributes to our well-being,” said Fahey. And yet, our urban forest is under threat.

“A big transition is occurring today,” said Fahey. “We are losing old trees, and with them, their benefits. In the near future, we expect to see a shift to smaller, shorter-lived tree species. Combine these factors with the effects of climate change and new pests like emerald ash borer, and our urban forest may become less valuable.” “We can help ourselves by taking care of it,” Fahey said.

He recently completed a study with Arboretum plant conservation biologist Marlin Bowles and research assistant Jeanette McBride to show how vegetation has changed in the last 200 years, and to predict how the urban forest might look in the future. They compared data from The Morton Arboretum Tree Census, taken in 2010, with data from the 19th-century U.S. Public Land Surveys.

“Two hundred years ago, northeastern Illinois was a mosaic of mainly forests and prairies,” said Fahey. “A key finding of our study is that areas that used to be forested have more, larger and older trees than areas that were previously prairie. But many of the trees that originated in that pre-urban landscape are reaching the end of their natural life span or are dying from pests or diseases.”

Clearly, tree conservation and tree planting are more important than ever before.
What can you do to help? Here’s Fahey’s advice:
* Think of your yard as a piece of the urban forest. Help your trees live long, healthy lives.
* Learn to recognize invasive plants like buckthorn and remove them from your property.
* Work with your community to plant trees with high ecological value. A great example is Oak Park’s “Historic Oaks Propagation Project”
* Plant a variety of tree species. (Remember the plight of American elm and ash).
* Support forest preserves and their mission to manage and restore natural areas.

Related Resources:

Chicago Tribune- Finding the Urban Forest in Your Neck of the Woods
Morton Arboretum