Dr. Andy Kenney: Forester, Professor Emeritus, Consultant
The continuous supply of ecological, social, and economic benefits provided by the urban forest to people living in a city or town and to the broader environment can only be achieved through a coordinated and long-term approach with clearly identified objectives.
Photographs: Tree Fest Ottawa
Q.1. When did you first become interested in trees and what made you did you decide to pursue a career in forestry?
I have been interested in forests and trees for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a small town, and my Dad was a lover of the bush and a great fisherman. So my interests were either in my genes or simply formulated through time with my Dad. When it was time for me to consider post-secondary education, forestry was the only option in which I was seriously interested. Over my career, the transition from conventional forestry to urban forestry was somewhat unexpected, because the concept of forestry in inhabited landscapes seemed to be the antithesis of what attracted me as a young forester. Like many foresters, I thought I wanted a career in the bush, away from people. However, some early career opportunities revealed that working with people, especially those who shared my interests in forests, was very rewarding. What better place than in the urban forest to blend an interest in people with an interest in forests? After more than two decades in urban forestry, I am very satisfied with the results of the transition.
Q.2. In your opinion, why is it important to consider the urban forest as integral infrastructure in a city?
If we consider the long list of its environmental, social, and economic benefits (that I won't repeat here), it's hard to imagine NOT recognizing how the urban forest is integrated with the grey infrastructure of our cities and towns. In many, perhaps even most, circumstances this integration has happened naturally, without a great deal of planning or intentional intervention by humans beyond simply planting trees. It’s only over the past two decades that we have started to really understand how the interactions between the green and grey infrastructure and urban dwellers influence all three of these components. Of course, these interactions have both positive and negative outcomes. So, to the question, we can work with nature in the urban environment as an integral part or we can work against nature. If we work against nature then we know which side wins in the long-run.
Q.3. From your perspective, what are the three leading issues impacting Ottawa’s urban forest at this time?
For the most part, the major issues facing Ottawa's urban forest are the same as those facing urban forests across the country and around the world. Therefore, while the following thoughts apply to Ottawa, I don't think they apply to this city any more or any less than to other Canadian municipalities, large or small.
1) Climate change: In my opinion, climate change will become the major driver in economic and social decision-making in the near future. So, by default, it will be a major issue in urban forest planning and management. The urban forest literature is replete with evidence that the urban forest can play a significant part in mitigating the impact of climate change; for example, it plays a role in reducing the impact of the urban heat island, UV exposure, and extreme weather, including flooding and so-on. However, while we may rely more and more on the urban forest to help mitigate the effects of climate change, it will also be under greater stress as a result of climate change. The question is, will this produce a positive feed-back loop?
2) Engaging private property owners in urban forest stewardship: The majority of the urban forest is on private property, and the social, environmental, and economic benefits that the forest generates tend to be from the cumulative impacts of the forest as a whole. Consequently, we can only realize the true benefits from the forest if private landowners are fully engaged. By "private landowners" I really mean those responsible for all non-municipal property, which includes residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, and so on. Because private ownership is fragmented into so many small units, and people's perspectives and resources are so diverse, the implementation of stewardship strategies to promote the conservation and enhancement of the urban forest on private property presents a monumental challenge. Remember, more than two thirds of the urban forest in most communities is on private land.
3) Walking the talk: The awareness of the roles of the urban forest and the challenges it faces has grown dramatically over the past few decades. While the ice storm of '98 and the more recent Emerald Ash Borer infestation have been devastating for our urban forests, they have been critically important events in getting people's attention. To quote Joni Mitchell, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." But awareness isn't enough. Well-crafted plans and policies achieve little if they aren't implemented.
Q.3. Ottawa is currently developing its first Urban Forest Management Plan. Why is it important to have a management plan for the urban forest, and how will the plan make a difference to the health and protection of the urban forest?
In the interest of disclosure, I was part of the consulting team that drafted the Urban Forest Management Plan for Ottawa. Forests are complex and constantly changing entities, though these changes may be imperceptible to most of us. Trees, by definition, are the dominant component of most forests, and their roles within the forest develop and change over decades. Urban forests are superimposed on the complexity of the built environment, where the dominant components are humans and their infrastructure. The continuous supply of ecological, social, and economic benefits provided by the urban forest to people living in a city or town and to the broader environment can only be achieved through a coordinated and long-term approach with clearly identified objectives. The City of Ottawa has had a comprehensive urban forestry program for many years. The development of the management plan provided an opportunity to a) review current approaches; b) examine interactions among departments and stakeholders with respect to the urban forest; c) identify and articulate clear goals; and d) establish tasks to ensure that the urban forestry programs can move effectively towards achieving those goals.
Q.4. This year, the city is going to undertake a comprehensive urban forest canopy cover survey. How will the information gathered from the survey be used?
Canopy cover analyses can take a number of forms. They can range from a simple assessment of the proportion of the city that is covered by tree canopy to more in-depth analyses that take advantage of emerging technologies in remote sensing and geographical information systems (GIS). A simple assessment can provide a single value for the city or, with a little more effort, it can produce values by specific components of the city such as neighbourhood, ward, or land-use type. However this is done, such an analysis can be completed relatively quickly and inexpensively. But to be blunt, simple assessments are of little value, since a simple estimate of canopy cover provides very little that can inform stewardship decision-making. More detailed canopy cover analyses can provide not only the existing canopy cover by ward, neighbourhood or land use, but also an estimate of the potential canopy cover. By integrating this type of canopy analysis with the city's GIS, it would be possible to determine where additional trees could be established, given the presence of existing grey infrastructure and land-use limitations. Such an analysis would be much more valuable. Let's take a couple of hypothetical examples: A simple canopy analysis reveals that part of the city has a very low canopy cover, let's say 10%. The area is primarily commercial, with two major roads intersecting at its centre. Another area on the city's fringe also has an existing canopy cover of 10%. This area is primarily residential with single -family dwellings. The more detailed analysis reveals that the first area has a canopy cover of 10% and a potential canopy cover of 12%. The residential area, on the other hand, is primarily new development and while it has an existing canopy cover of 10% it has a potential canopy cover of 35%. Clearly, tree establishment efforts will be more effective in the latter than the former area. This is a very basic example, and a more detailed canopy cover analysis involving existing and potential canopy cover can be refined to provide much more detail of the canopy across the city. But it's important to keep in mind that, while such a detailed assessment of canopy cover is an important first step, it isn't the final answer. Even the most detailed aerial assessment of the urban forest doesn't provide details on species diversity, tree size/age, or condition. Perhaps someday technology will make it possible to get all of this from satellite or aerial data, but until then this important information still must be collected from the ground. The City has a ground-based inventory that provides much of this detail for street and park trees.
Q.5. You and a colleague at the University of Toronto developed a community-level stewardship initiative called Neighbourwoods©, which is part citizen science and part tree sampling and analysis. What is the purpose of Neighbourwoods and how can citizens and local governments use the data?
First of all, a clarification: Your question refers to tree sampling. Strictly speaking, the Neighbourwoods inventory is intended to be more than a sample. The ultimate goal is to assess the species, size, location and condition of ALL trees in a community's urban forest. As noted above, most of the urban forest is on private property, with a substantial part of that component being residential property. The stewardship of any resource is dependent on a clear understanding of its extent, structure and condition. While the City has an inventory of trees on municipal property, the part of the urban forest on private property is, for the most part, a black box. Neighbourwoods was developed to empower community groups to lead the stewardship of the urban forest in their neighbourhood, based on a strong understanding of the current status of the forest. A protocol was developed through which community volunteers can collect detailed, comprehensive, and reliable information about ALL trees (public and private) in their neighbourhood. The inventory protocol is structured in such a way that volunteers can use a series of approximately 30 easy-to-assess parameters to describe the species, size, location, and condition of each tree. Data analysis software has been developed to aid the community in the interpretation of this data and to develop a stewardship strategy.
Q.6. Are there any community groups in Ottawa currently undertaking a Neighbourwoods study? If so, which neighbourhood(s) and how is it going?
Yes, but just recently. In the summer of 2016, volunteers from the Champlain Oaks project initiated Neighbourwoods in Champlain Park. A weekend training session took place in June of that year, and data collection was carried out over the summer. A preliminary data summary report was developed at the end of the summer. Hopefully, this group will continue the inventory of their neighbourhood and eventually use that data to inform a stewardship plan for their neighbourhood. Other neighbourhood groups interested in this approach should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q.8. In your opinion, is there a growing understanding by the public about the importance of the urban forest? What else can be done to raise awareness and appreciation for trees?
Absolutely! When I first began working in urban forestry any presentation or discussion of the topic had to start with a definition of what the term meant – surely the term “urban forestry” is an oxymoron! The term is now mainstream. The number of environmental NGOs and community groups with a focus on urban forestry has been growing steadily. Because of the fragmented nature of the urban forest, as mentioned earlier, it is important that the City and local NGOs adopt an aggressive public engagement campaign to support community groups in their stewardship efforts. Again, you will notice that I have said engagement and not simply awareness. While knowledge is key, action based on that knowledge is essential. In my opinion, that action should be centred on the neighbourhood, with an emphasis on private property. We must also move beyond the idea that urban forest stewardship is all about planting trees. Because the benefits that we derive from those trees increases exponentially with the size of the tree, the care and maintenance of the trees that we plant and the ones already there must be given much greater priority than is currently the case – especially on private property.
Q.9. From your perspective, what social returns are generated through investments in an urban forest?
Because Ottawa is blessed with a proximity to many natural and semi-natural areas (Gatineau Park, Mer Bleue, Larose Forest, the Greenbelt, etc.), escaping to nature is relatively easy for many Ottawans. Notwithstanding this richness, the urban forest is the urbanite's closest connection to the natural environment: they live in it, travel through it on their way to work or school, and, if they’re lucky, can even enjoy it through their window during the day. If this simple observation is too out-there for someone to justify urban forest stewardship from a social benefits perspective, there is plenty of evidence in the literature that closer physical and psychological connections with nature have tangible health benefits. Even the active participation in conservation itself can have positive social benefits. On at least two occasions, our Neighbourwoods partner communities have indicated that the inventory activities described earlier have had a strong community-building effect over and above the benefits of the data collection per se. EO. Wilson's concept of Biophilia suggests that humans have an innate urge to associate with other forms of life. The urban forest provides a mechanism to fulfil that urge, at least partially, on a day-to-day basis.
Q.10. Finally, do you have a favourite tree species native to Eastern Ontario? If so, which one and why?
Not really. I'd rather think in terms of forests than tree species, ecosystems rather than just their individual components. Because diversity is such an important aspect of any ecosystem, I feel it’s more appropriate to think in terms of collections of species (trees and other organisms) and how they interact with each other and the rest of the ecosystem.