Community engagement is arguably the single most important component in modern urban forestry.
Without an engaged, committed, and informed community, urban forestry will be just another unsuccessful great idea we had “back in the day” before climate change became a bipartisan commitment.
We need to address the issues and determine effective urban forest community engagement as soon as possible, as trees take decades to grow and in turn provide the benefits we seek and promote. Every year - and every growing season - that passes in which we struggle to get trees in the ground is another year lost in increasing canopy cover. Urban forestry is not a myopic short term endeavour; it is a long term inter-generational commitment.
There are various issues regarding how we deal with tree related issues. Communication appears to be a consistent area where improvement would benefit both sides. A selection of local government urban forest managers and community groups were asked to complete a brief questionnaire to understand each party’s views of urban forest community engagement.
In compiling the responses from contributors, it immediately became clear that communication was one of the primary aspects that municipal managers and community groups would like to see improved. The poor communication exhibited was similar to a dysfunctional marriage that required therapy.
Urban forest managers are keenly aware of the issues around community engagement and require assistance and strategy at many levels to move forward in tackling this essential component of urban forestry. The community groups expressed that their concerns or requests are not always adequately addressed. Again, the issue here relates back to knowledge of trees and managing urban forests. Maybe budgetary transparency could aid communication and stimulate community engagement.
Of course, there is not a silver bullet approach to successful community engagement due to the fact that all communities are different and the urban forests of the world are diverse in their makeup. A customised approach would be required for individual community engagement projects within in the urban forest.
There are many great examples of successful community engagement projects. One Australian example is the City of Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy. The assigning of email addresses to all 77,000 trees within the city to give people a chance to offer concise input was immensely successful.
The City of Melbourne also launched BioBlitz 2016, a major citizen science project that provides multiple ways the public can engage and participate in urban forestry by documenting the diversity of species that utilise the urban forest for habitat. These initiatives are demonstrating that community engagement is possible and people want to participate, they just need to be given the opportunity.
Of course, not all municipalities have the same types of communities or the same budgets. Perhaps some have a greater task at hand - for example communities that don’t want or like trees, requiring an alternative, creative strategy to deliver the message of the importance of trees in Urban environments.
Effective communication and engagement are invaluable tools in implementing successful urban forest projects.
New York City is a great example of a challenging urban forest, but at the same time, the city contains a plethora of successful initiatives we can all learn from. A recent meeting with stakeholders from USDA, NYC Parks and the Prospect Park Alliance to discuss community engagement as it pertains to urban forestry fittingly took place during a record-breaking autumn extreme weather event, highlighting the importance of urban canopy cover and a green refuge area for human health.
Here is an example of effective communication, community engagement and management capabilities all rolled into to a single (long life) tree tag:
Community Engagement Questionnaire
Question 1. In your experience, what are three main obstacles for effective engagement between municipality and community?
"Funding to resource and effective engagement process. Trees are a very complicated and controversial issue and many councils struggle with the messaging and approach to overcome this.
People either love or hate trees. The issue tends to incite passion which makes it difficult to get an even conversation in the community" – Jen Guice, City of Sydney
Guice hit the nail on the head here and highlighted again how difficult community engagement can be. Changing entrenched views of "hating" trees is a major task. On the other hand, there is no point just preaching to the converted and maintaining a divided community ethos. It’s an unbalanced vote, because the trees don’t get a say and they can’t move to a more sympathetic electorate. Urban forest managers all over the world face similar views of trees. Global urban forest managers should draw on each other’s experience and ideas to design effective community engagement protocols.
Education campaigns were consistently raised by the managers as an essential component of their individual urban forest strategies.
Question 2. If you had a magic wand, what could solve a large amount of community/municipal engagement issues with one spell?
"A broad scale education campaign through various media sources
An example of broad scale education is years ago when the Victorian drought really took hold, restrictions were put in place, with a major water wise campaign. When the drought essentially finished, many people continued to be water wise, out of habit." – Robert Mineo, City of Monash
Education will not happen overnight and there needs to be a detailed strategy outlined. Knowledge and understanding of the environment is an enormous learning curve. Its starts with awareness around the benefits of urban forestry, a quantified measurable state of density and health of the urban forest and then what we can all do to implement, engage and maintain urban forest projects. Knowledge is an essential component.
An idea comes to mind of federally funded horticultural courses. Could this be a possibility? You willI often hear people on radio garden programs ask “What’s the best thing I can use or do?”
To get an answer to that question, you need to explain the variables further. There isn’t a single technique or product; you need to understand your environment more. If more people had a higher level of horticultural knowledge and experience, the questions could be asked more concisely and answered more effectively. With children learning more and more about food gardens and environmental sciences at school, maybe talkback radio shows will be more informative in future.
A recent workshop held with the Friends of Caulfield Park community group covered the complex topic of soil health (microbial interactions with plants). Through an interactive and fun demonstration, a complex topic was covered in a relatively short time. The participants went back out into the community with a greater understanding of soil health, and appreciation of managing tree populations in challenging times of intensive urbanization and climate change.
Question 3. Do you think Urban Forest community engagement in your area will increase in time with younger generations?
"Engagement will definitely increase as the impacts of climate change become more and more apparent and the solution to making the area more livable will be understood to include planting more trees.
I think the generation of people with young children are the ones who will have the most influence in the short term. They see the need for shade and cooling and are interested in increased property prices and the other benefits that trees in the landscape provide. Youth education about the benefits of trees in the landscape is important but culturally if their elders are not interested or have negative views about trees, this will influence kids too. This is the cycle we have seen for generations." - Jen Guice, City of Sydney
The High Line project in the old meat packing district of NYC is a great example of successful community engagement. It's a long-term project that provides a green refuge in a built environment, encourages local investment, increases tourism and property values, and stimulates the community. Local New Yorkers would surely have plenty to say about this project in regard to the success, challenges and future viability, but for now let us just celebrate the great success of this urban forest community engagement project.