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Climate & Energy
Healthy Communities and Urban Natural Resource Stewardship
Healthy Communities and Urban Natural Resource Stewardship. Credit: AJ Bombers CC-BY-NC 2.0

Michael T. Rains, Erika S. Svendsen, Lindsay K. Campbell, Morgan Grove, Sarah Low, and Lynne Westphal

America’s Forests and Cities: Then and Now
The USDA (Department of Agriculture) Forest Service has direct and indirect roles on most of our nation’s 885 million acres of forests. When the Forest Service was created in 1905, only 13 cities worldwide had populations of one million people or more. Eighty years later, 230 cities have a population of more than one million people. In the new millennium, it is projected that there will be more than 400 cities with a population of one million people and 26 megacities with populations of more than 10 million people. Looking nationally, about 50 percent of our nation’s population lived in urban areas in 1920. Today, about 83 percent of our people live in cities and towns. Simply put, this is the first century in our history that the majority of humans live in urban areas.

The Change in Population from Rural to Urban The Chief of the Forest Service has a responsibility to help ensure that forested landscapes, including those in urban areas, are healthy, sustainable, and provide the required green infrastructure that effectively links environmental health with community resiliency and stability. In partnership with states, municipalities, and non-governmental organizations, the Forest Service has been formally engaged with the management and care of approximately 138 million acres of trees and forests in cities, towns, and communities since the early 1970’s. At the heart of ensuring the proper care of America’s urban natural resources and improving people’s lives are the collaborations among federal, state, and local governments and a wide range of partnerships. The slogan that illustrates the mission of the Forest Service is “caring for the land and serving people.” As we face the conservation demands along the entire rural-to-urban land gradient, we must embrace the challenge and opportunity that arises as we view the scope of the motto differently. That is, “caring for the land and serving people, where they live.”

Rising Up to Meet a Changing Landscape and Constituency
The spatial extent of our urban areas is growing. Cities are no longer compact; they sprawl in spider-like configurations and increasingly intermingle with wildlands. As a result, new forms of urban development have emerged including a wildland-urban interface in which housing is interspersed in forests, shrublands, and desert habitats. Along with this spatial change is a shift in perspectives, behaviors, and constituencies. Although many of these habitats were formerly dominated by agriculturalists and foresters, they are now populated by people from urban places, who, in turn, draw upon a more urban experience.1 While growth may be inevitable, smart growth should be the guiding principle if we are interested in the sustainability of our natural resources and its linkage to the protection of lives and property.

In caring for urban forests, our focus and engagement goes well beyond trees. We are interested in the stewardship of the urban environment across a broad range of urban forest site types, including parks, community gardens and orchards, waterfronts, wetlands, meadows, brownfields, and vacant lots. One of the most enduring lessons of cities is the important and vital relationship between grey infrastructure (e.g., streets and buildings), green infrastructure (e.g., forests, parks and open spaces), blue infrastructure (e.g. streams, ponds, lakes, and harbors), and the human communities that create and inhabit cities and their infrastructures.

High school students contribute to the development of a summary site environmental report at the Argonne National Laboratory's wetlands. Credit: George Joch, Argonne National Laboratory CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Cities are unique in that the sheer density of people interacting with natural resources can create new and unique benefits. Research and experience indicate the important role that trees and urban natural resources play in creating healthy places for people to live: linkages with better school performance, reduced crime rates, and greater social cohesion. Engaging volunteers and community groups in the stewardship of these resources can increase civic engagement, neighborhood efficacy, ecological literacy, and market innovation. The body of research is becoming too large to ignore and difficult to catalogue. Simply, healthy urban natural resources support healthy urban places and people.

Over the last few decades, through its Urban Natural Resource Stewardship program, the Forest Service has emerged as a leader in developing cutting-edge urban research and practices through strategies that include—and begin with—people.

The Role of the Forest Service and Federal Service
In the rapidly urbanizing landscape, research collaborations have evolved to better address issues related to urban natural resources stewardship and system dynamics, including sustainability and resiliency. The majority of our work takes place through partnerships and collaborative models, focusing on social-ecological systems research to produce useful knowledge for land managers and decision-makers. For example, our program in Baltimore is one of just two urban National Science Foundation (NSF) Long-Term Ecological Research sites, along with the Central Arizona- Phoenix project. Accompanying the NSF, the Forest Service has provided core funding and support to the Baltimore Ecosystem Study as it spans everything from conceptual models and theory development, to empirical studies, to research applications and community engagement, to science and art. It offers a model of an expanded view of the Agency’s role in “urban forestry” research, broadly defined.

Rethinking the urban landscape to maximize benefits to ecological and human health. Credit: Flickr user UrbanGrammar CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Over the past few years, the Forest Service has begun to establish a network of Urban Field Stations in densely populated metropolitan regions. This network is part of the long arc of Forest Service Research and Development (R&D) investments in place-based, long term research first begun with the Experimental Forest and Range Network. Currently, there are 80 Experimental Forest or Range sites, but none of themare located in urban areas. The Urban Field Stations create new opportunities to engage with local experts and connect with practices of urban natural resource management that may be more than a century old in many of our nation’s cities. Comprised of multi-disciplinary science and practice teams, Urban Field Stations have been established in Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia. Solid programs of urban research have emerged in San Juan, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, and Sacramento, and work has begun in Los Angeles and Denver. Much work remains to be done.

The shared mission of the Urban Field Station Network is to improve the quality of life in urban and urbanizing areas by conducting and supporting short-term and long-term research about urban social-ecological systems and natural resource management. Urban Field Stations are designed to address pressing questions facing urban and metropolitan regions in the US and beyond. Urban Field Stations are physical places to conduct research but are also networks of relationships among scientists, practitioners, and facilities within cities but also across the Forest Service R&D network. Working in conjunction with local partners, the Forest Service is growing the network of scientists working directly in cities and advancing a research-in-action agenda, whereby scientists and urban natural resource managers work iteratively to inform knowledge and practice.

Boy in tree. Credit: Sarah Gilbert CC BY-NC-SA 2.0While each field station responds to the unique environmental, social, and organizational characteristics of their place and partners, they also work within the network to share data, leverage resources, and promote comparative and interdisciplinary research. For example, the pioneering stewardship mapping research (STEW-MAP) in New York City has been replicated in Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Programmatically, a fellowship program developed in Philadelphia has been modified and adapted to New York City.The field stations are innovators in creating knowledge at the interface of research and practice, as evidenced through collaborations such as TreeBaltimore, Chicago Wilderness, and the MillionTreesNYC campaign. They also innovate in the area of science communication and translation by creating novel and nontraditional research products; convening public events such as seminars, workshops and symposia; maintaining a strong presence in traditional and online media; and supporting artist-in-residence programs.

The ambition and contributions of the Urban Field Station Network continue the Forest Service’s lineage and traditions, characterized by the maxim of our first Chief, Gifford Pinchot, when he described the Forest Service’s role to promote the “...greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.”Urban natural resources stewardship may address this maxim more completely than any other conservation imperative the Agency embraces. Although the Forest Service does not own or manage land within most urban areas, nor does it regulate any aspect of the urban environment, it nonetheless has a crucial role to play across the country. The Forest Service’s Urban Field Stations can best fulfill these roles with participation from all the Agency’s Mission Areas and its partners. Some of these partnerships are already underway. The Urban Field Stations can link urban populations to the National Forest System through the water they drink, the wood they use, and the places they recreate. State and Private Forestry can share best management practices, support new innovations, and provide training. Forest Service Research and Development can develop new knowledge and applications for better understanding and managing urban natural resources. Conservation Education can develop educational materials for people with information from where they live. The Partnership Office can develop strategies for building synergies and amplifying the reach of the Urban Field Station Network throughout the country by collaborating with national and regional organizations such as The Pinchot Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Fund, Wildlife Habitat Council, and many more. International Programs can link the experiences and expertise of the Forest Service to promote urban sustainability and resilience throughout the world. Thus, the vision of the Urban Field Station Network is to be an inclusive platform, advancing the roles and resources of the entire Forest Service to provide the “greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time,” wherever they might live.

Michael T. Rains, Erika S. Svendsen, Lindsay K. Campbell, Morgan Grove, Sarah Low and Lynne Westphal are employees of the USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Research and Development.

1 Grove, J. Morgan. 2009. “Cities: Managing Densely Settled Social- Ecological Systems.” In F.S. Chapin et al. (eds.), Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship. New York: Springer: 281-204.
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