Urban forestry through the lens of “socio-ecological systems”

Contributed by Seth Reid, following a vigorous class discussion with guest presentation by Genevra Ornelas.

ResearchBlogging.orgOur March 4th class discussion revolved around urban forestry and how it pertained to an article written by John M. Anderis, Marcos A. Jannsen, and Elinor Ostrom. This article provided, “A Framework to Analyze the Robustness of Social-ecologcial Sytems from an Institutional Perspective.” The discussion was lead by a former graduate student, Genevra Ornelas, who is a certified arborist that worked with Canopy in Palo Alto and Tree Fresno. Both organizations are comprised of urban foresters who plant trees around their cities in order to enhance the social welfare of the inhabitants of their respective urban forests.

So what is a Social-ecological system (SES) and how does an urban forest fit within the system? A SES is an ecological system that is intricately linked with and affected by one or more social system (Anderis et. al 2004). Fresno’s SES is the city, its buildings and roadways, its trees and vegetation, its municipalities, and its people. All these variables interact with each other and affect Fresno’s hydrology, its temperature, its pollutants, and its infrastructure. A healthy urban forest can mitigate many of the negative effects of urbanization.

Trees improve hydrology by increasing water infiltration and reducing runoff. They reduce temperature by providing shade, decreasing albedo at the surface level, and decreasing the urban island effect. They decrease air pollution by removing particles from the air. They can even improve infrastructure by protecting asphalt, wood, and plastics from UV rays and heat damage. A tree can save the community time, money, and valuable resources in the long run.

Urban forestry organizations are the voice that advocate for trees. They are the liaison between public knowledge and institutional knowledge. Probably the most important role they have is to educate the public on the importance of trees and how trees integrate with local institutions and municipalities. An educated public can make informed decisions on where to plant trees, and which trees to plant. Organizations such as Canopy and Tree Fresno also help facilitate this by providing trees, hosting celebrations, and presenting awards to citizen tree stewards.

Simply planting trees in our cities is not the answer to all our problems. Dave Craig, an economics professor from the University of Wellington in New Zealand used to challenge our class with a quote, “To Every Complex Question, there is a simple answer, and it’s wrong.” Many trees emit volatile organic compounds, drop limbs, possess extensive canopies and root systems that can damage infrastructure. They do not respect property boundaries, and may do mischievous things like tap into a neighbor’s septic system or uproot city sidewalks. The right tree in the right place can help minimize the risks involved, but risks will still be present. Planting a tree that will bring more benefits then risks is quintessential.

A key component to urban forestry is the concept of the right tree in the right place. As we discussed in class, this is just another example of how humans assert their dominance and control nature. We control what trees grow where and genetically modify them to fit our needs. We select against smelly trees such as female ginkos, or messy trees like female Chinese pistache trees. We breed them to grow larger flowers such as saucer magnolias, or to produce no offspring like fruitless mulberries. We want the benefits of the trees, but we want to avoid many of the drawbacks that come with them. Often we prefer the living dead over “natural” trees. We want our trees to fulfill our needs, but we do not want to reciprocate. We want to control nature.

“The right tree in the right place” is a mantra that has been ingrained into my head over the last three years. In the interim between my undergraduate studies and graduate school I accepted the first job that was available; I became a utility forester with a company called ACRT Inc. My company is a PG&E contractor that is responsible for inspecting trees around the high voltage power lines. As a utility forester I am responsible for maintaining the power line right-of-way by assessing health and grow rates of trees. If a tree is in danger of encroaching upon the right-of-way and disrupting power then I list it for trim or for removal.

As a utility forester I also assume the role of liaison between PG&E, PG&E tree-trimmer, and property owner. This is challenging because all entities involved have conflicting goals. PG&E wants power reliability and fire safety, the tree trimmers want lots of units to trim, and property owners want to maintain the aesthetics of their landscape. When everyone is an agreement my job is easy, but in many cases I have to follow best management practices that leave one or more of the parties upset. Educating the public is the most effective way to accomplish these conflicting goals because most people are unaware of the laws regarding tree and power lines, and most people know very little about tree growth. Just like non-affiliated urban forestry organizations, education is the most powerful tool I have to rectify disagreements between interested parties.

PG&E is a major social component that affects the ecological system of Fresno and my company is just another urban forest organization that is a liaison between the public and a municipality. In order for Fresno to improve its urban forest and maximize the benefits it can provide to humankind, all parties need to compromise and cooperate with one another. But one question still lingers in my mind, where is the Lorax who speaks for the trees?


Anderies, J. M., Janssen, M. A., & Ostrom, E. (2004). A Framework to Analyze the Robustness of Social-ecological Systems from an Institutional Perspective Ecology and Society, 9(1): 18. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss1/art18/

3 thoughts on “Urban forestry through the lens of “socio-ecological systems”

  1. V. V. Robin

    I must commend Seth on his excellent summary and for his effort to include his experience into this write-up. Thats a great job!However, as mentioned in the class, I take exception to a part of the logic and premise of the discussion (nothing to do with Seth’s summary). I fear that from the idealistic discussions of “reconciliation” in the first few classes, we have now reached a ‘tree-planting’ stage. I think the reconciliation we discussed was about ‘ecology’ that includes a range of organisms that are free to interact with each other. I think this part has been lost somewhere and we are now talking about being and going “green”. From the first class I mentioned that I am skeptical about “reconciliation” ecology as it implies humans engineering things for species and that inherently implies subjectivity, lack of knowledge and choice. I am even more convinced now that reconciliation is a good theory, but is far from a current practical solution as it implies making decisions that may contradict human desires. I would like to take this argument to another logical level by stating that “Reservation” may be the best solution for us as (a) different ecological functions can be ‘allowed’ to occur without much human interference, (2) it is perhaps more of a way to push species not desired by humans into an area away from them than providing a space for protecting them and this goes well with our current mindset. We can discuss this if anyone wishes to.Below is a paper with an interesting opinion. Nothing really new but well put together and its Hanski’s word…. Note the part on the concept of habitat loss in our minds.http://www.helsinki.fi/~ihanski/Articles/EMBO%202005%20Hanski.pdf

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