Urban Forest Projects Address Energy, Health, Education, More

August 31, 2011

Organizations in IL, NY, and TX have just received substantial funding from the US Forest Service so they can work on projects related to urban forests. The products and efforts are, or will be, available for use by others around the country, making them of interest to any journalist covering urban environmental or health issues.

In NY, i-Tree project supporters put up $309,963, and the USFS added $257,000, for a total of $566,963. i-Tree software has been available for about five years, and been in development for about a decade; the new funding will go toward adding more granularity to the software programs and information so users can create more refined results.

The free i-Tree software provides many ways for evaluating and predicting what functions any given tree or mass of trees perform, such as temperature control, impact on air or water quality, carbon storage, or effects on energy use. Using this information, any individual or organization dealing with trees — whether at the level of one tree, a neighborhood, a city, or a state — can also determine things such as what species of tree is appropriate for any given location; what the net economic costs and benefits of trees are; what the effects of a storm have been; or what a disease or insect infestation is doing.

For an overview and details about i-Tree, see:

  • State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, i-Tree; Chuck Kroll, 315-470-6699, cell 607-342-8687; Ted Endreny, 315-470-6565.

i-Tree officials won't distribute a public list of the roughly 7,300 organizations and individuals worldwide (including about 5,900 in the US) that have downloaded some part of the program or are using it. However, those officials have mapped the US state and county where users are located. If these general locations spark your interest, contact Scott Maco (see below) and he will contact the users in the state or county and ask them to contact you if they are so inclined. As another option, you could simply contact organizations in your audience area you think might be using this tool, and see if they are using it, are considering it, have rejected it, or are unaware of it. 

Focusing on a very different topic, USFS gave the Texas office of the National Wildlife Federation $188,000. Combined with matching funds from organizations teaming with NWF, the groups have committed a total of $768,091 to develop and test out Natural Play and Learning Areas National Guidelines.

The goal is to better integrate nature into play settings in schools, child-care centers, parks, museums, zoos, and similar settings. NWF's Allen Cooper (512-610-7769, cell 512-299-0058, email) says planning and design for many of these settings typically focuses primarily on safety, liability, and ease of maintenance, with natural features being mostly an afterthought. He and his partners hope to transform this process by providing guidelines that allow for integration of natural features as a significant element in these settings, at low cost and risk to the organization creating the setting. Cooper says this kind of comprehensive guidance has never been available before.

However, prototypes using these principles have been developed. One example he cites is:

Five organizations will be building pilot projects to test out the guidelines as they are being developed. Both the projects and the guidelines are expected to be completed in about two years. Lessons learned as the guidelines are published and used, and as the pilot projects are designed, built, and used, will be incorporated into a subsequent update of the guidelines. The five organizations are:

For more information on the concepts behind this work, see:

The entire process is being overseen by a steering committee of people from selected federal and state agencies and parks, education, child-care, design, environmental, health, and related organizations.

In IL, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received about $281,000 from USFS, and put up about $282,000 of its own money, for a total of $563,589. The funding is for research on the exact relationship between the extent of urban forest occurrence and the connection with stress in people, which is one of many health and societal factors that have been linked positively or negatively with urban trees (e.g., cardiovascular disease, stroke, fatigue, mental health, neighborhood cohesion, crime, aggression).

William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, says that, while such links have been shown, no one knows at what point they begin, or if there is a linear relationship, or if they plateau. To help fill this gap, his team's research is designed to see how various percentages of tree cover affect stress in hundreds of test subjects shown images of a range of neighborhood settings. The results may provide a starting point for developing hypotheses about how trees affect various health and psychological endpoints, and for doing other research that explores longer-term effects, rather than the brief exposures to images of trees the test subjects will experience. Once viable information is available, communities will be able to more accurately predict what they can do, in a cost-effective way, to improve their environment.

When the research is completed in about two years, it will be folded into the i-Tree software. The authors will also pursue publishing the results in a journal.