Something to grate on your nerves

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.  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.

2 thoughts on “Something to grate on your nerves”

  1. This is an old debate that has seen some interesting solutions in the field of medicine and agriculture. When I attended UBC as an undergrad in the faculty of agriculture, the profs changed the structure of the classroom from lecture to problem based learning and required that all students in the faculty take core courses together learning about broad themes and challenges in the food system. The debate centered on whether we need to teach depth or breadth of knowledge. As noted above many problems can start in the sciences (poor soils, nutrition, productivity etc.) however the underlying dynamics may be much more complex and reach beyond the bounds of the hard sciences. As an example our unit on vegetarianism started out as a traditional nutrition based survey of the current literature on the health impacts of eating vegetarian. However the case then required students to make policy recommendations. This required opening up the question to economic, social, religious, cultural, ethical and environmental considerations that needed to be weighed along with t
    he nutritional information. The lesson I took home at the end of the day is people are part of the environment, we have an enormous impact on outcomes and often can be more of a determining factor than environmental circumstances. To bring it back to horticulture, dealing with clients is as much an art as it is a science. The ins and outs of client relations can at times make one feel like we need to be specialists in human relationships and dynamics just as much as we are experts in choosing ideal plants for a specific situation. It is an open question whether this type of information should be introduced to students prior to going out into the workplace to practice horticulture. I am quite sure they do not discuss it at Ryerson, UBC, UofT or Guelph.

  2. Thanks Jonas for the comment. We do live in age of specialization and we tend to downplay things that don’t fit in our box. Many biologists often trivialize the ‘soft’ sciences and I know a horticultural marketing professor that brags about burning her plant physiology textbook after her comps were over. The old joke is that a scientist is someone who learns more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. Many granting agencies are starting to combat some of this by emphasizing trans-disciplinary research teams. The challenge is come up with ways to make these true, integrated teams and not a bunch of people off working in their own corner.

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