Mapping the urban forest one tree at a time
May 3, 2010
How do we get a good picture of what trees are where, how they are contributing to the environment, and what problems they might be susceptible to in today's changing world? The main problem with recording this vital information is (to borrow a line) “tree people like planting trees, they don't like entering data.” So why not throw the task open to the local community? The Urban Forest Map is a one-stop repository using information contributed from any willing group or individual and aims to engage community participation to build a complete, dynamic picture of the urban forest.
Anybody can add, edit or find a tree they know in San Francisco and the Urban Forest Map will use the information to quantify the environmental benefits the trees are providing. Typing in a tree species will bring up a map of San Francisco with dots indicating all the recorded trees of that type, plus greenhouse benefits measured in pounds of carbon dioxide reduced, water benefits in gallons of water conserved, energy benefits in kilowatt-hours of energy conserved, tons of pollutants they are reducing and the total economic benefit of each in U.S. dollars.
Until now, such detailed information on tree distribution has been sorely absent or woefully incomplete. The Urban Forest map began with two urban foresters; one working from the community organization perspective, and the other from the government research side. They wanted to build a picture of of the urban forest; where trees are, what species are represented, how old and healthy they are, distribution of trees geographically, but were frustrated that such valuable information was not easily available. Despite being of value a wide variety of people from town planners, city foresters, ecologists, landscape architects, to tree advocacy groups and residents, software technology or lack thereof, coupled with difficulties coordinating government departments and failure to record trees on private property at all meant no clear picture could be gained.
Following a grant awarded by the the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) funded by Proposition 84 they expanded the project and is now a collaboration of government, non-profits, businesses and individuals.
The information gathered will be of vital use to urban foresters and city planners in better managing trees, allowing them to track and combat tree pests and diseases, and also plan future tree plantings. Additionally climatologists will be able to use the information to better understand the effects of urban forests on climates, and students and scientists can use the site to learn about the role of trees in the urban ecosystem.
It's also fun to use and interactive and while it works to improve information sharing, it also communicates the value of the urban forest, and engages communities in creating and taking care of greener, urban environments.
We hope to see this initiative spread to other cities.