I’ve had an on-going discussion – OK, argument – with a fellow faculty member who does research on social dimensions of forestry, including urban forestry. She contends that we basically know everything we need to know about growing trees in cities and that the real underlying problems in urban and community forestry these days are social issues. This, of course, means that funding for urban forestry research, what little there is, should be directed at social sciences. Needless to say, as a tree physiologist, I can point to lots of examples of trees in cities in pitiful conditions and under stress. To which, my colleague would hasten to ask, “Is it because the urban forester (if the city can afford one) doesn’t know any better or because they don’t have the resources to do anything about it?” Which is a valid point. Most of the urban and community foresters I know are dedicated, well-educated, highly professional, and woefully under-staffed. The Greening of Detroit, a community-based urban forestry non-profit, got its start several years ago because the city could not afford a tree planting program. The city forestry department dedicated its meager resources to tree trimming; going into triage mode on a 125-year back-log of tree maintenance. Why would a city plant trees when it can’t even care for the ones it has?
What got me thinking about this was a New York Times article on a rash of tree grate thefts in the city. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/if-its-made-of-metal-thieves-increasingly-have-an-eye-for-it/ With the rising price of metal such as iron and copper, thieves are making off with just about anything made of metal including tree grates and man-hole covers. We can probably start a whole other debate about tree grates and tree pits and whether they are effective, but, in any event, the city forestry department will now have to devote resources to replacing the stolen tree grates and figuring out ways to keep the replacements from disappearing as well.
I’m not ready to concede that we know everything we need to know about growing trees, but the longer I’m at it, the more I see the need to integrate the biological and the social elements. We can develop the best tree establishment and tree care protocols in the world but if there no money or no public support to implement them, it’s all for naught.