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Long-term Urban Forest Management

All over the country, cities are recognizing the dire need for better protection of their urban canopies. Cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburg to Boston, San Francisco, Austin, Tallahassee, Charlotte, and more. The well-being of the people, the community, and the environment depends on the strategic expansion of the urban canopy. Investing in the urban canopy, cities have developed detailed game plans to meet their goals.

A map of Pittsburg depicting its land cover usage. Graphic from Pittsburg's Master Tree Plan.

What goes into a long-term management plan?

In cities and urban areas where tree cover is declining due to factors of age, development, and poor planning, the need to grow the urban forest is an urgent endeavor. The first step in outlining an urban forest plan is to define the purpose. What needs will growing and managing an urban forest address? What goals would be achieved by instituting an urban forest plan? Many cities share common threads when it comes to problems with their urban canopy:

  • Inadequate tree cover and inadequate access to tree cover

    • The disinvestment of green infrastructure in communities that deserve and need to benefit from ecological services the most

    • Historical systems of oppression: environmental racism as a result of previous zoning laws

    • Political and social barriers

  • Environmental Hazards

    • Urban heat islands and increasing record heat waves

    • Air pollution: smog, nitrous oxides, exhaust

    • Stormwater flooding from impervious surfaces

    • Sea level rise for coastal cities

  • Missed Opportunities and Health Benefits

    • Increased energy efficiency (cooling) associated with increased tree cover

    • Improved quality of air and water

    • Promotes physical and mental wellbeing

Pollution is a major issue for many large cities like Philadelphia. Luckily, trees can help.

The Strategy

Cities are starting to implement these plans to target issues with their urban forests and hopefully create more healthy and resilient communities. With the onset of climate change, cities are recognizing the power that a strong urban canopy can have in resisting problems from severe weather events. Cities are waking up to the unfair disadvantages burdened on certain members of the community because of a poorly managed canopy.

Many cities agree. Urban forest plans need to increase the protection of trees. Future action needs to be governed by social equity and environmental justice. Community needs should drive decision-making. Here are some strategies for doing just that:

Coordinating a task force

  • Having regular community meetings about neighborhood trees

    • More than just the occasional tree planting

    • More involvement and coordination among stakeholders

  • Local tree workforce

    • Hire city arborists and a team of professionals to manage tree canopy

  • Maintain funding and resources for staff, including parks and recreational departments

  • Interdepartmental reliance on tree management and decision-making

    • Combining data sets between different departments to better coordinate planning

Protections for existing trees

  • Remove tree planting exclusion zones, like parks, so that trees can be replaced where they lost

  • Improve conditions for trees

    • Pest management, plant health care, prioritizing trees in need, regular inspections of tree inventory

    • Improve planting designs

      • Increased soil volume and larger tree wells

  • Expand and rewrite current ordinances

    • Clarify existing policies

  • Minimize tree conflicts with public entities

    • Bury powerlines

  • Requiring a minimum amount of native trees but not excluding nonnatives from the urban canopy

Expand the tree canopy

  • Plant trees in open spaces, residential land, and underutilized land

    • Parking lots and abandoned lots

  • Strategically plant trees guided by ethical and equitable consideration

    • Planting in regions that have low percentages of tree cover and prioritize disinvested lands

Monitoring the process

  • Data collection

    • Continually updating and expanding tree inventory

  • Improve communication and accessibility of data

    • Make data available to the public

  • Increase public awareness and education

    • Educate findings

    • Address myths and fears about removing mature trees

    • Expose more people, especially kids, to nature

    • Foster more accessibility to careers in forestry and related fields

    • Create a workforce that reflects the community


  • Create an emergency response and recovery plan

  • Develop a risk management plan

    • Clearly identify ownership and liability

  • Help residents support their trees

    • Reduce the burdens of tree care for individuals

High-density tree planting, like the photo above, can be used to repurpose abandoned lots.

After outlining strategies, the plan needs to be implemented. Progress needs to be monitored and backed by data.

  • Measure changes in tree canopy over time

    • Assess rates of loss versus rates of canopy gains

  • Create a timeline for goals and strategies based on the scale of the project

    • Most cities have short, mid, and long-term goals within their plan

  • Estimate costs to achieve goals

    • Need to know where funding will come from and how to ensure funding will be sustained

    • Create a budget around goals

Commendable Tree Plans

The city of Boston has a pretty aggressive tree plan to get its urban canopy into shape.

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston's master tree plan dedicates a whole index of different tree species for use in its urban canopy. It identifies which species can be planted where (like in parks versus on streets versus on private property, etc.) and lists how a species is expected to fare with climate change. This guide helps ensure that the city invests in the right kind of tree for specific projects; this is a long-term investment meant to last. The plan had very specific and detailed goals within its main goals. Thoughtful planning for the community and the urban canopy is extensive.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Officially published just this year, the Philly Tree Plan is quite impressive. It has very clear graphics and data visuals that outline problems with Philly's urban canopy. With well-defined strategies, this plan demonstrates how it plans to meet its goals in the next decade. The plan estimates costs to reach 30% tree cover, while factoring canopy losses, in different sections of the city and on different land types (parks, residential lots, schools, and public facilities). With expansive resources available to the public, it is clear that community involvement is a top priority.

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