The largest in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence on ur­ban forestry re­cently took place in Van­cou­ver. Over 700 ur­ban green­ing ex­perts from across the globe came to­gether to share their ex­per­tise on this rapidly grow­ing and crit­i­cally im­por­tant dis­ci­pline.

Three as­so­ci­a­tions — Trees Canada (a not-for-profit char­ity ded­i­cated to plant­ing and nur­tur­ing trees), the Pa­cific North­west Chap­ter of the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety of Ar­bori­cul­ture (PNW-ISA) and UBC’s In­ter­na­tional Ur­ban Tree Di­ver­sity Con­fer­ence — com­bined their re­sources at this ground­break­ing event. UBC is emerg­ing as a leader in ur­ban forestry ed­u­ca­tion un­der the lead­er­ship of Dr. Ce­cil Koni­j­nendijk, a world-renowned pro­fes­sor of ur­ban forestry.

I had the plea­sure of speak­ing with Mike Rosen, pres­i­dent of Trees Canada, about some of the key el­e­ments of this event. The pur­pose of the con­fer­ence was to ex­plore the sig­nif­i­cance of tree di­ver­sity in na­ture and the role of var­i­ous species to im­prove ur­ban forests and to make cities more adapt­able to the on­go­ing ef­fects of cli­mate change. Tree di­ver­sity was one of the main top­ics. Rosen be­lieves that ge­netic di­ver­sity, too, is es­sen­tial for long term suc­cess.

Rosen ex­plained, “In do­ing so, we hope to cre­ate a bet­ter cli­mate change buf­fer in ur­ban ar­eas. Im­proved di­ver­sity is key to help­ing ur­ban forests with­stand the chal­lenges ahead. The other im­por­tant fac­tor is to cre­ate a bet­ter en­vi­ron­ment for peo­ple who live in high-den­sity ur­ban ar­eas. There are many doc­u­mented health ben­e­fits re­sult­ing from easy ac­cess to green spa­ces.”

What were the de­sired out­comes the con­fer­ence or­ga­niz­ers were hop­ing to achieve? Ac­cord­ing to Rosen, the most ur­gent goal was to mo­ti­vate all lev­els of govern­ments around the world to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of ur­ban forestry and its pos­i­tive ben­e­fits on the en­vi­ron­ment and the peo­ple liv­ing and work­ing in larger cities. Learn­ing more about the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of keep­ing trees alive and thriv­ing in city sit­u­a­tions was also an in­te­gral part of the pro­gram.

A very rel­e­vant topic for Bri­tish Columbians was cre­at­ing re­silience to wild­fires and get­ting folks to rec­og­nize that trees aren’t the en­emy but are part of the so­lu­tion. This ap­proach in­volves bet­ter strate­gic plan­ning about the styles and types of green spa­ces and how to lo­cate trees, whether in a pri­vate back­yard or in a com­mu­nity set­ting. Rosen also men­tioned there are on­go­ing stud­ies work­ing with First Na­tion com­mu­ni­ties to bet­ter un­der­stand their re­la­tion­ship with forests.

An­other at­tendee, Cathy Wolf from Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­sity, has spent her ca­reer study­ing the ef­fects of trees on pub­lic health. She ex­plained how in one project she com­pared two very dif­fer­ent hous­ing projects — one with great land­scape de­sign that in­cor­po­rated an abun­dance of trees and the other with very min­i­mal plant­ings. The re­sults were very in­ter­est­ing. The poorly land­scaped de­vel­op­ment had more in­ci­dents of graf­fiti, higher lev­els of res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness and in­creased cases of ADD (At­ten­tion Deficit Dis­or­der).

I also had the plea­sure of speak­ing with Jeremy Bar­rell, a tree spe­cial­ist from Bri­tain, who gave the key­note ad­dress on the topic of tree canopies. He is very con­cerned about the loss of ur­ban trees world­wide, es­pe­cially in new de­vel­op­ment sit­u­a­tions. “Trees are easy to cut down, but larger ones sim­ply can­not be re­placed.” Many new plant­ings are not sur­viv­ing, of­ten be­cause of pest prob­lems, main­te­nance is­sues, or the fact that they were the wrong choices. Be­cause of a lack of un­der­stand­ing the true value of trees, he be­lieves there is an ab­sence of po­lit­i­cal will to main­tain crit­i­cal tree canopies in ur­ban ar­eas.

When asked what the key val­ues of trees were, Bar­rell re­sponded, “There are so many. Cli­mate buffer­ing is one. Trees help reg­u­late ex­ces­sive rain­fall; they cool the heat ‘is­lands’ that are so preva­lent in cities; they se­quester car­bon; they aid in col­lect­ing pol­lu­tion par­ti­cles; and they pro­vide habi­tat for im­por­tant wildlife like birds and pol­li­na­tors. That’s not even fac­tor­ing in the per­sonal ben­e­fits to hu­mans, such as im­proved over­all health and well be­ing and pos­i­tive so­cial­iza­tion ef­fects.”

Bar­rell also said that in many cases we are plant­ing the wrong trees, and are not plant­ing a wide enough va­ri­ety of di­verse species. The trees of to­mor­row need to have the abil­ity to sur­vive dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions such as poor soil, drought and ex­treme weather con­di­tions.

Are these trees avail­able now? “There is al­ways that de­bate about na­tive plants ver­sus ex­otic trees. Work is be­ing done around the world to find na­tive plants that are sur­viv­ing and thriv­ing in the most hos­tile en­vi­ron­ments pos­si­ble and to breed those char­ac­ter­is­tics into trees that fit the cri­te­ria for ur­ban canopies.”

I asked Bar­rell about the new ‘for­est apart­ments’ be­ing con­structed in places like The Hague in the Nether­lands and the ‘for­est cities’ be­ing planned in China.

“These are pos­i­tive ini­tia­tives, but re­mem­ber, China is one of the few places in the world where the govern­ment can dic­tate the de­vel­op­ment of a for­est city,” Bar­rell said. "They des­ig­nate a spe­cial clas­si­fi­ca­tion for such cities and a great deal of plan­ning is go­ing into their de­sign. A min­i­mum of 20 per cent of these cities will have tree canopy cov­ers, and within 50 me­tres of where a per­son lives, there must be a tree canopy. It’s very ex­cit­ing.”

We should be very proud that this con­fer­ence was held in Van­cou­ver with so many great minds com­ing to­gether to help mit­i­gate cli­mate chal­lenges, while at the same time work­ing to cre­ate an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment that will im­prove the qual­ity of life for all cit­i­zens. Cli­mate change and high-den­sity liv­ing are re­al­i­ties, but there is good rea­son for op­ti­mism.


Tree canopies like the ones in Van­cou­ver’s Gas­town be­stow many ben­e­fits in cities, such as reg­u­lat­ing rain­fall, se­ques­ter­ing car­bon and col­lect­ing pol­lu­tion par­ti­cles.


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