Tools to Empower Volunteer Urban Foresters

Ithaca, NY (January 5, 2014) – Cities across the U.S. are making capital investments in urban reforestation to manage a host of environmental issues–from air quality to storm water management and energy reduction. Few cities, however, are investing in the ongoing human capital needed to care for and maintain newly-planted trees on city streets.

Volunteer pruning 4According to an article by Philip Silva in The Nature of Cities, the one-time capital investment of planting thousands of trees is “nothing compared to the ongoing cost of staffing an army of public employees dedicated to keeping those trees alive.”

Here’s how Silva describes it: “While the expense of sustainably managing a rural forest often pays for itself in the form of timber, the indirect benefits of a thriving urban forest never transform into real dollars and cents deposited in municipal coffers. We can calculate the value of ecosystem services provided by a functioning urban forest—the tons of carbon emissions prevented, the gallons of rainwater absorbed—but those savings don’t reappear as a line item in the street tree budget.”

To make ends meet, cities often rely on volunteer labor. If that’s the case, Silva suggest that volunteers not be treated as unpaid employees of local governments and start to empower volunteers who are doing much of the day-to-day labor of tree maintenance.

Silva suggests new tools and technologies for urban forest volunteers that help them mobilize, map, and monitor the city’s trees. And to do it in a way that is best for them and their community.

OpenTreeMap, for example is an open-source website that allows the public to interact with detailed maps of urban forests. Volunteers can use this as a tool to track tree maintenance and record their activity. It functions much like a self-organized volunteer mobilization system. For communities that may not have a map-based inventory of trees to use OpenTreeMap, TreeKIT also offers a low-cost method for mapping neighborhood streets.

While more sophisticated protocols and rigorous tools exist for assessing urban tree health, most are beyond the reach of the average volunteer. Silva suggests initiatives like the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science and Photosynq, which are developing affordable and easy-to-use environmental sensing technologies that can take the place of other, less accessible tools. Public Lab recently unveiled open-source designs for a D.I.Y. spectrometer and near-infrared camera, both of which are potentially relevant for assessing tree health through measures of photosynthesis.

As tools like these become available, Silva suggests that they can help volunteers make more refined assessments of their urban forestry efforts and empower them to gradually tweak and adapt their practices based on good data about what does — and doesn’t — work.

Source: Three M’s for Empowering Volunteer Urban Foresters: Mobilizing, Mapping, and Monitoring,” The Nature of Cities