What is Urban Forestry?


As an arborist with a degree in forestry, I often get asked to explain the differences between terms – what’s the difference between forestry and urban forestry, between forestry and arboriculture, and between municipal arboriculture and urban forestry?

Let’s start with the biggest one – what’s the difference between forestry and urban forestry? A lot of people think the term urban forestry is an oxymoron. The forest is the place you go to get away from the urban area. It’s that place “out there” so how can there be such a thing as an urban forest? In fact, there actually exists a continuum between traditional forestry and urban forestry and, as development continues and people continue to move into more rural areas, the differences will become smaller and smaller.

I remember the first time I heard the term urban forestry. One of the women in the class below us was advocating for it to be added as a specialty for our forestry program. By then, I was a senior and in the home stretch for my degree. I also grew up in a small town and never thought for a minute I would live in a large city, so I didn’t see urban forestry as relevant to me – boy was I wrong. Like many people, I just couldn’t see the point.

There’s several commonly accepted urban forestry definitions, but one that seems to be pretty well accepted is:

“Urban Forestry is a specialized branch of forestry that has as its objective the cultivation and management of trees for their present and potential contribution to the physiological, sociological and economic well-being of urban society. Inherent in this function is a comprehensive program designed to educate the urban populace on the role of trees and related plants in the urban environment. In its broadest sense, urban forestry embraces a multi-managerial system that includes municipal watersheds, wildlife habitats, outdoor recreation opportunities, landscape design, recycling of municipal wastes, tree care in general, and the future production of wood fiber as a raw material” (Society of American Foresters 1974)

Wow, that’s really long and incorporates a lot! I think it can be summed up as: “manage trees for the contribution to the well-being of urban society and educate people about the roles trees play.” I really like that education is central to the definition – it seems like we don’t do a great job educating the public. Otherwise people wouldn’t constantly say “urban forest, what’s that?!” with a laugh. I generally tell people that urban forestry “manages the trees where people live, work, play and learn. People plant trees where they live and those trees along with the trees already there collectively make up the urban forest.”

So, the main difference between urban forestry and forestry? People. Which leads to a difference in management. There’s clearly overlap – traditional forestry manages for wildlife and recreation as well as timber production. However, forestry has traditionally focused on timber production, and that’s largely what my degree focused on – how to measure the amount of standing timber, how to get higher quality timber, how to manage the forest so that you can harvest timber indefinitely (sustainability). Lesser attention was paid to the ecosystems benefits – such as clean air and water, and educating the general public was not part of the mix – most of my classmates got into forestry to be away from people. Urban Forestry focuses on the roles trees play in making our cities more livable. And to continue to have trees requires us to reach out to the general public and provide education.

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