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Sustainable Development e-News


Urban Forestry: Closest to the People

By Don Outen, AICP, Natural Resource Manager
Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management
Baltimore County, Maryland

Don Outen

If Tree City USA communities are a measure of the state of our urban forests, the good news is that street trees, parks and other urban forests are being cared for in 3,100 communities that house about 120 million Americans.  And $238 million is spent annually on tree care in these communities, at the minimum expenditure of $2 per capita.  Larger communities, of which there are 131 with more than 150,000 people, house some 59 million citizens and invest more than $117 million annually.

But Tree Cities are only a subset of America’s urban forests.  There are more than 39,000 local governments in the United States, including 3,100 counties and equivalents and, within them, 19,400 municipalities and 16,500 townships.  There are 217 counties with more than 250,000 people, totaling 160 million and encompassing 158 million acres.  The 82 largest counties with densities of more than 1,000 per square mile include 95 million citizens living on 28 million acres, with a mean density of 2,150 per square mile.  Few counties are Tree City USA communities.

Urban forestry is a challenge due often to inhospitable conditions for tree survival.  But urban and community forestry is concerned with more than caring for street trees and municipal parks.  From a systems view of urban forests providing multiple ecological and socioeconomic benefits, urban forests are under siege from land development in cities and on the urban fringe.  The real challenge for urban and community forestry is retaining and increasing the forest base, as well as caring for urban trees.

The Forest Service has embraced urban and community forestry and forest sustainability as policy, has committed to research and developed useful assessment tools (i-Tree, etc.), and has partnered with local communities to provide much-needed technical and financial assistance.  The Forest Service understands the importance of a sustained presence at the local level and the need to transfer technology and local successes for others.  Support for the American Planning Association’s forthcoming Planners Advisory Service guidance manual on planning with urban forestry is exemplary.

In Maryland, the Forest Service is a leader and active partner in Chesapeake Bay restoration, including setting Urban Tree Canopy Goals, conducting Urban Forest Effects assessments, and partnering with Baltimore’s Long-Term Ecological Research study.  The Forest Service helped build local capacity for forest sustainability in Baltimore County through sponsorship of our Linking Communities to the Montréal Process Criteria and Indicators project, culminating in the preparation of a Forest Sustainability Strategy and the signing of a partnership Memorandum of Understanding for Sustainable Forest Management.  Baltimore County, with 801,000 people and 134,000 forested acres, is also an example of using zoning to reduce forest fragmentation, promoting forest sustainability for reservoir protection, regulating development to protect streams and forests, working with rural landowners on reforestation, and using education and coupons to increase urban canopy.

The Forest Service needs to continue working with counties, especially, to view forests as strategic environmental tools.  Hundreds of urban counties have responsibility under National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System MS4 permits to control urban runoff.  Many older urban areas have inadequate storm water management and urban forests can help assure compliance.  The same is true for implementing Total Maximum Daily Load programs, which will affect most urban jurisdictions due to nutrient and sediment impairments to water quality.

Counties have the greatest influence over the vulnerability of forests to loss from development through their power over land use by implementing comprehensive master plans; using zoning and subdivision regulations and landscaping requirements; ensuring the availability of growth-serving infrastructure and of environmental restoration projects; and promoting education and engagement of their citizenry.

The Forest Service is well positioned to influence significantly the awareness by urban counties about the strategic use of their forests for multiple environmental programs.  Urban forests are forests where the people are, and local governments are those closest to the people.

Don Outen, a geographer-planner, has worked for the past 33 years in Maryland in land use planning and environmental management with state, regional, and local governments and in academia.  Don has worked since 1987 for the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, where among other duties he is coordinator of the County’s Forest Sustainability Program, an outcome of the national “Linking Communities to the Montreal Process Criteria and Indicators” project.  He was invited recently to serve on the Core Group of the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests as a community/local government representative. 

He earned a B.S. degree in Geography and Environmental Planning in 1972 from Towson University and an M.S. degree in Urban Planning from The Johns Hopkins University in 1977.  He was also a doctoral candidate in Geography at the University of Maryland at College Park, but left the program in 1988.

Outen, a native of Maryland, has reforested and managed a small woodlot since 1978.

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    Last Modified: Friday, September 29, 2006