The Care of Forested Natural Areas in American Cities
Forested Natural Areas Contribute to Healthy and Vibrant Cities
With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, urban forests are becoming increasingly relevant due to the wide range of documented benefits they can provide. Forests can make cities more livable by providing local opportunities to experience nature in an otherwise built environment, which can lead to improved physical and mental health. After walking in nature, people self-report reductions in anger, fatigue, anxiety, and sadness, and report an increase in energy. Forests can provide opportunities to volunteer and recreate with neighbors, which can lead to improved social ties and sense of community.
Forested natural areas also contribute to local climate change solutions. As cities become warmer and more frequent intense weather events occur, our local forests will help alleviate these stressors by absorbing storm water, cooling temperatures, filtering pollution, and storing carbon. Forested natural areas are also critical places to protect and maintain local biodiversity. As land continues to be converted for urban use, forests provide habitat for plants and animals and they act as a window into the natural history of that city. Natural areas account for 84% of urban parkland. Despite representing the largest concentration of nature in cities, and providing important benefits, urban forested natural areas have traditionally gone unnoticed, underused, and under protected.
Urban Forested Natural Areas Need Management
A common misconception is that forests can take care of themselves. However, the urban context comes with unique challenges that require novel management approaches. Fragmentation, invasive species, and past and current land use can all cause decline and degradation of forest conditions — ultimately causing a reduction in benefits including loss of biodiversity, limits to public access, loss of carbon storage, and ecosystem services. The decline of forest condition diminishes the experience for all park visitors, but the lack of safe and meaningful access to nature disproportionally impacts low-income residents who might not experience forests outside of the city.
Research has shown that more than half of park users interviewed in New York City experienced nature only within public city parks. This research reinforces that it has never been more important to invest in urban nature. It underscores the need for healthy local forests that are safe, easy to access, and provide quality recreational spaces.
Targeted management interventions can shift declining forest trajectories and can lead to healthier more resilient forests that safeguard the benefits they provide. Effective management of forested natural areas includes the removal of invasive species, building and maintaining trails, improving soil condition, and planting tree seedlings. Management can be implemented by trained staff or volunteers.
First National Review of Forested Natural Areas Management
Together, the Natural Areas Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, and Yale University conducted a survey of organizations working to manage forested natural areas across the United States. The goal of the survey was to provide an in-depth look at how and why forested natural areas are managed. The widespread response revealed the eagerness of land managers to share best practices, challenges, and opportunities as a network and set of partnerships. This survey is the first of its kind and received responses from 125 organizations in 111 cities across 40 states.
Findings from the survey include:
- Urban forested natural areas are valued as critical places to improve the quality of life for city residents. But they need management intervention in order to thrive and sustain.
- Invasive species are the top ecological threat that organizations face, and invasive species removal is the most common management activity.
- Respondents collaborate locally, however less than half participate in regional or national networks.
- There is high variability in the type and quantity of data available to describe the condition.
- There are opportunities to strengthen ties within the fields of public health, urban planning, and climate resilience.
For a detailed look at our survey questions and responses visit: www.naturalareasnyc.org/national
Urban Forested Natural Areas are a National Resource
Municipal governments and local partner organizations are the primary governing bodies responsible for improving greenspaces in cities. But unlike other public lands, they do not have formal oversight, protection, research or guidance for their care. In comparison to rural forests, urban conservation strategies are developing — often with limited data and resources to understand basic information like where they are, their condition, and how they are changing. In cities, this responsibility has been left up to local institutions and governing bodies.
As our world becomes more urban, local forests will play a primary role in conservation education and nature connection for millions of people nationwide. Ensuring healthy forests in cities is not just an important mandate for individual cities but should be considered a national priority.
We Each Have a Role to Play
A sharper focus on managing and supporting forested natural areas is essential to ensuring healthy urban communities for the future. Success will require investment and interest from practitioners, federal agencies, researchers, and the philanthropic community. Based on the survey results described, we call on the entities listed below to modify or expand their efforts in the following ways:
- Practitioners should revisit the assumptions and information that underlie their work to ensure that their efforts are achieving both social and ecological goals.
- Federal Agencies and NGOs that work nationally on forest management and conservation should expand their efforts to include urban forested natural areas and connect with urban practitioners across the nation.
- Researchers should deepen their relationships with practitioners to answer scientific questions that will advance the management of forested natural areas through an understanding of ecological, social, and governing processes across space and time.
- The Philanthropic Community should catalyze innovation in the care and management of forested natural areas. By creating funding opportunities for management, monitoring, engagement, and research that focus on sustaining and caring for forested natural areas, they will help ensure the existence of healthy cities and communities in the future.
- Mayors and Chief Resiliency Officers should invest in tree planting and forest management to mitigate extreme heat, capture and store carbon, and improve quality of life for residents. Forested natural areas should be incorporated into city resiliency or climate action plans.
As our world becomes more urban, forests in cities will continue to be under stress from local development pressure changing urban and global environments and the need for management will only increase. No single city or organization can address all of the challenges that urban forested natural areas face. Strong partnerships based on common goals will lead to increased awareness of these critical resources, and will contribute to more effective management both locally and nationally. This fall, the Natural Areas Conservancy will host a workshop for 12 cities to discuss best practices and challenges, develop case studies, and foster collaboration around this topic. The cities that are participating include:
- Austin, Texas
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Billings, Montana
- Chicago Metro Region, Illinois
- Houston, Texas
- Indianapolis, Indiana
- Miami, Florida
- Twin Cities Metro Region, Minnesota
- New York, New York
- St Louis, Missouri
- Seattle – Puget Sound Region, Washington
- Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida
To keep track of our work and this project visit: www.naturalareasnyc.org/national.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
The best nature-based solutions on urban industrial lands are those that are part of a corporate citizenship or conservation strategy like DTE’s or Phillips66. By integrating efforts such as tree plantings, restorations, or pollinator gardens into a larger strategy, companies begin to mainstream biodiversity into their operations. When they crosswalk the effort to other CSR goals like employee engagement, community relations, and/or workforce development, like the CommuniTree initiative, the projects become more resilient.
Air quality in urban residential communities near industrial facilities will not be improved by nature alone. But nature can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, bring benefits including recreation, education, and an increased sense of community pride. As one tool to combat disparate societal outcomes, nature is accessible, affordable and has few, if any, downsides.
I spoke last week to Adrian Benepe, former commissioner for the NYC Parks Department and currently the Senior Vice President and Director of National Programs at The Trust for Public Land.
We discussed a lot of things – the increased use of parks in the era of COVID-19, the role parks have historically played – and currently play – in citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and protests, access & equity for underserved communities, the coming budget shortfalls and how they might play out in park systems.
I wanted to pull out the discussion we had about funding for parks and share Adrian’s thoughts with all of you, as I think it will be most timely and valuable as we move forward with new budgets and new realities.
There is a risk of further widening the gap between so-called ‘knowledge workers’ able to do their jobs remotely and afford to move, and those with place-based employment who cannot. Beyond that, retreating residents might take the very identity and uniqueness of the places they abandon with them.
Nurturing the community-resident bond could be an antidote to these dismaying departures, and new research sheds light on how. A recent report by the Urban Institute and commissioned by the Knight Foundation surveyed 11,000 residents of 26 U.S. metro areas to uncover what amenities created a “sense of attachment and connection to their city or community.” Three key recommendations emerged in Smart Cities Dive’s synopsis of the results.