Engaging Communities: Using Tree Inventories to Start the Conversation

Issue: 
January-February 2012

Puric-Mladenovic explains: “Every professional doing something for trees (in Ontario) does it because they love it. Otherwise they would be doing something else. We’ve never had more information of how nature operates, yet we’ve never been more arrogant. Do we think we can produce plastic trees? The first settlers that arrived here had the mentality of clearing trees for agriculture. They saw a sea of trees. That mentality hasn’t changed much since I arrived in Canada.” 

Just about every arborist in Ontario can understand Dr. Puric-Mladenovic’s frustration. We all know trees have exponential benefits but as a society we argue about the relatively small costs needed to preserve the urban forest. Dr. Puric-Mladenovic and her colleague Dr. Andy Kenney decided to do something about this concern. Back in the 1990s they developed a program, now called NeighbourWoods, designed to encourage people to take a good look at their trees. Their goal was to excite ordinary people, those who go to work every day and have busy lives, to look at the trees around them and develop an appreciation for the work trees do. 


More on NeighbourWoods (from Scott Anderson, excerpt from the Leading Edge, U of T, Spring 2011)
NeighbourWoods is a program created by U of T forestry professors Andrew Kenney and Dr. Puric-Mladenovic. The program enlists volunteers to measure and classify all the trees in their community and then develop a strategy for caring for and, eventually, replacing them.

Volunteers collect information about the size, type, health and location of trees, which Kenney’s team enters into a database, analyzes and shares on Google Earth (with the community’s permission). 

Neighbourwoods groups have formed in downtown Toronto and across Ontario. Kenney says the next step is to develop strategies for urban forest renewal, and to estimate the benefits in terms of air quality, storm water management and lower carbon emissions. These calculations “make it clear why we’re doing this in the first place,” he says.


When the first tree survey was completed, they had a eureka moment recognizing that their program accomplished its goal of engaging people in the community and so much more. The data collected provided real financial value to municipalities and cities. Dr. Puric-Mladenovic says, “We don’t look for people to use our survey. They come to us.” 

Dr. Puric-Mladenovic says keen communities, motivation and enthusiasm are important. And, if visual appeal – or something else – is the only or top priority for undertaking an inventory, that’s OK. The data collected will almost always generate dialogue on a wide range of issues. The key is to get the conversation started in the community. When an inventory was started in Davenport, Toronto, initial interest was based on skin cancer prevention for children by planting trees to shade a wading pool and playground, but as the project developed, the group became acutely aware of the socio-economic aspects of the neighbourhood and this impacted their original plans. 

As explained at www.wikipedia.org, Davenport is a neighbourhood northwest of downtown in Toronto. It is located north of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks and Dupont Avenue and south of Davenport Road. Its eastern boundary is Bathurst Street and it stretches west to Lansdowne Avenue.

Andrea Dawber is not a forester or an arborist. Her background is in communication and fund raising and she’s a mom. Her original goal was not to care for Davenport’s trees; it was to care for her growing son and prevent skin cancer. As the project progressed, however, the importance of the trees couldn’t be ignored and the resulting union of forestry and non-forestry professionals to promote wellness in the community was extraordinary. The group that formed from the NeighbourWoods initiative is called GreenHere (www.greenhere.ca), their work has been featured several times in the Ontario Arborist).

Tammy Finnikin, Project Manager with GreenHere, has an environmental protection background. She says their target area, Davenport, is about 1,000 acres. It is industrial/residential with 25% of family incomes at $20,000 or less. The major languages spoken are Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. 

Davenport was a tough area for volunteers to inventory due to the extreme diversity of trees. They found that hand-held computer identification programs were not as helpful as books, and at times they had to clip branches and take them back to GreenHere’s office so they could be looked up. They found a high percentage of exotic fruit and nut trees – likely brought by immigrants from their home countries. The majority of trees were unmaintained. Like most tree programs, the ultimate goal is to promote the planting of native canopy trees, but in this area with its tiny lots, GreenHere discovered that encouraging the community to see the trees as a food source was more successful in promoting tree care and an interest in greening the community. 

Dr. Puric-Mladenovic said, “People in urban areas have unique preferences – and cultural differences. Appreciate it. People like fruit trees. Keep them. In urban areas we have to juggle things all the time. There is no rubber stamp solution, but we can help them make better choices. Explain how a big tree will reduce air conditioning costs.” She adds, “Those exotic fruit and nut trees are adding diversity and we need diversity in our canopy.”

GreenHere founder Dawber also noted that due to the economic status of the area, they started searching for unique sources to obtain trees. Trees used as accents in a local garden show in the winter were saved by storing them in a greenhouse until weather permitted outdoor planting. She also used her training in fund raising to seek out ways of obtaining finances so they could offer residents free trees. 

The inventory in Davenport resulted directly in planting because unlike its US counterpart (UFORE), this Canadian program collects data on spots suitable for planting. Volunteers knock on doors and ask permission to assess current trees and potential sites for new trees. The inventory includes front yard, back yard, and municipal trees and accompanying spaces that could support more trees. 

Elora’s Tree Experience
Toni Ellis, Coordinator, NeighbourWoods on the Grand, is working in Elora, Ontario on their tree inventory. Her group is also using the NeighbourWoods program, under the direction of the Elora Environment Centre. As a quick aside, visit www.ecee.on.ca/index.cfm?page=tree_info and have a look at all the great tree information provided on the Centre’s website. It’s a fantastic community resource – and one that should be present in every jurisdiction.

Ellis says, “To properly manage your urban forest you need to know what you have.” NeighbourWoods on the Grand is working to rebuild the community tree canopy through tree planting, stewardship, public education and advocacy about the need for, and value of, trees.

Like Andrea Dawber, Ellis is also not a forester or an arborist. She started out planting trees with the local horticultural society and couldn’t understand why homeowners wouldn’t take better care of the new saplings. The Elora Environment Centre chose to look at NeighbourWoods because, “It is affordable.” Furthermore, Ellis says, the program engages different types of people than “planters” and horticultural societies. People who volunteer to do tree inventories are more attracted to science-based programs. The Environment Centre put out posters, emails, used word-of-mouth and had meetings for signing up. They got a great mix of participants including retirees, summer students and working people. 

Moving Across the Border
In the US, another free computer program has been developed to inventory trees. It became well known here in Ontario when the Town of Oakville used it to do their UFORE survey. (Oakville’s report isavailable at:www.oakville.ca/forestry.htm. UFORE is the Urban Forest Effects Model. Dr. Puric-Mladenovic says this is an excellent program for professionals. It has great algorithms to show pollution levels and much more. It is also easy to use. However, the goal of the program is different from NeighbourWoods. It is designed for professionals to collect data in an efficient manner. 

Pam Louks, Community Urban Forest Coordinator in Indiana, was involved in their SUSI project (aka UFORE renamed). They called the program SUSI, pronounced Suzi, because they felt media attention could be grabbed with a “cute” title – and they were right – SUSI has engaged Indiana. “It is very popular. Fort Wayne took the information to council and used it as leverage for the budgeting of plantings and removals. It really helped them manage their forest.” Results of Indiana’s study can be found at: www.in.gov/dnr/forestry/files/fo-SUSI_summary.pdf.

SUSI also engages individuals. Louks said there are many inventory programs available. When they were investigating which one to use, their priority was, “It must be easy to understand the results so individuals can interpret the data and share it. SUSI is probably the best thing we’ve spent money on in twenty years.”

Although the direct “cost” of many inventory programs is free, the indirect costs can range from vests, tape measures, pruners, etc. to contracts and salaries. In the case of UFORE, professionals are hired to do the surveys. In the NeighbourWoods program, a professional is hired (or sometimes volunteers) to review the data. Both programs also need someone to coordinate and manage the work. 

Louks said, “The Indiana Sample Urban Statewide Inventory (SUSI) cost $149,513. That got us a sample random inventory of 26 cities and towns (SUSI communities); an I TREE STREETS analysis of the data of each with accompanying reports and fact sheets; a CD of each community’s data and analysis; and an Executive Summary of the data based on each community and extrapolated to the state data level. We received a grant for $50,000 that funded production of the SUSI fact sheets and other activities related to the initial SUSI project. We now know where to put our money.”   

The SUSI project found they have 18% silver maple, 7% sugar maple, 5% Norway maple, 5% green ash and 4% red maple with slightly more young than mature trees. Fifty-eight percent of the trees are in good or better condition.

SUSI’s published summary includes: “When cared for properly, Indiana’s street trees are worth the investment.” This summary has provided statistically valid, financially sound and defensible cost-benefit analysis concerning Indiana’s street tree resource. Citizens of Indiana can take comfort in knowing that the benefits produced by maintaining street trees outweigh the costs. In fact, for every $1 spent on street tree management, street trees pay back an average net value of $1.74 to towns, $1.17 to third class cities, $2.26 to second class cities, and $5.55 to first class cities in benefits returned to the community.

Falling Behind in Canada
Here in Canada, without federal urban forest planning, costs to implement the US-based UFORE program are out of reach for many areas. “We are way behind our southern neighbours on the tree front,” said Dr. Puric-Mladenovic.

Yet, there is no doubt when examining Indiana and Oakville’s professionally obtained inventories that the data is both understandable and motivational. With the NeighbourWoods program, citizens are actively engaged; they learn about their trees hands-on. Both programs inspire communities to care for their trees. 

Most trees in southern Ontario are privately owned. If these are not managed or cared for strategically, the entire community will suffer. Uniting tree and non-tree professionals through inventories is working in Davenport, Elora and many other areas of Ontario. Using the NeighbourWoods concept, the regions inventoried can be as small as a university campus or as large as you can muster enough volunteers to survey. 

NeighbourWoods vs. UFORE
As just touched on, a major difference between the NeighbourWoods and UFORE programs is the people who do the surveys. Since the original concept of NeighbourWoods was to excite and motivate citizens in general, average people do the survey. Volunteers look at the canopy and determine if it is full, look for broken branches, identify if there are any cavities or exposed roots, etc. The volunteers record what they see. They do not have to determine if the tree is healthy or not. They do not make judgments. With UFORE, professionals do the surveys. Professionals must determine if a tree is in excellent, good, fair or poor health. This assessment is not appropriate for an amateur doing weekend surveying.

Tree inventory programs like UFORE provide up front jobs for the tree care professionals who do the inventories (in Indiana, this was Davey Tree). Tree inventories can create jobs. In contrast, NeighbourWoods motivates individual people to plant and value trees and teaches them to observe trees for problems. Thus, these types of programs should also create jobs for both small and large arborist companies as problems are identified to the individual homeowners as the survey progresses. It should also promote jobs in the long-term as people are encouraged to take greater pride in “their” trees.

Another difference between the two programs is that inventorying trees using NeighbourWoods takes time. In Davenport, they are about one quarter complete and they are years into the program. Most of GreenHere’s time is spent interacting with the community. Some rare individuals refuse access to their back yards even after being educated about the program. People sometimes confuse the volunteer’s orange vests and think they are city employees. They ask when they will be back to cut down their tree! After explaining why they want access to the back yards and what they are doing, most people start to ask questions on how to care for trees and seek out information about “their” tree. The volunteers are on each block for a couple weeks. They don’t argue with people. They don’t try to “convert” people, but they do have a dialogue with people. They bring trees to the forefront.

In contrast, it took one year to do the SUSI surveys in Indiana and a second year to meet with the individual cities and towns to provide the report. In most cases, it is not surprising that UFORE-based inventories using professional labour cover more ground in less time then the NeighbourWoods programs.

Alex Watts is an environmental resource manager who studied under Dr. Kenney and is presently working on the Elora tree inventory. The town’s dominant trees are eastern white cedar and Norway maple with a lot of really large trees around heritage homes. There is also a lot of ash in front yards, but little in back yards. (Sidenote: Watts says the latter is frightening due to EAB.) Watts explains they changed the program to just look at street trees in order to finish the inventory sooner – and to engage council sooner. “We are building a relationship with council. We are having regular meetings with them to discuss our needs. Council has not said specifically how they will use the data but they love the program.” 

Ellis (Elora Environment Centre) agreed, “Council really likes it a lot and they are seeing that street trees have more value.” A week following my interview with Ellis she was planning to meet with council to discuss EAB and help develop a public work strategy. 

Dawber (GreenHere) stated, “In less advantageous neighbourhoods, people have experienced too many promises and disappointments. A new program must be rock solid. You must be there over and over again. Their housing and work situations are not stable. This is a barrier to expectations of success. The attitude, “Why bother. It will only be vandalized,” exists. If it is damaged, fix it. Be there for the long haul.” 

Dawber laughs looking back at how she started. She said her husband used to chide her about contagious diseases as she walked around her neighbourhood with her infant son in a stroller, picking up garbage. Today she says she never picks up garbage – everyone else is doing it. It is about winning cooperation. “When the city is talking about new sidewalks, water repair or whatever, get the schedule and be involved in the planning. Let’s make a better tree pit. Planning is critical. Help them get it right.”   


Forest Resource Inventories
Another program developed by Dr. Danijela Puric-Mladenovic is to standardize inventories in our forests and wild places. This is called Vegetation Sampling Protocol or VSP. This program (see www.forestry.utoronto.ca/imsa/VSP) could replace the forest resource inventory system that is now over 30 years-old. 

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