NACD Forestry Notes Q&A: Larry Wiseman, Vibrant Cities Lab

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Larry Wiseman formed CenterLine Strategy after a 29-year career as founding president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation. In 2010, he received the Legacy Award from the Arbor Day Foundation for career achievement in forestry. Since then, he’s served as Chair of the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council (NUCFAC) and acts as senior adviser to the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC).

Wiseman serves as co-creator and content developer for the Vibrant Cities Lab website. He shared time recently with NACD Forestry Notes to discuss the project.

You have partnered with Ian Leahy of American Forests on this project. Please discuss the genesis behind Vibrant Cities Lab.

At its most basic level, the Vibrant Cities Lab (VCL) helps answer two questions: why invest in urban forestry? And how do you develop effective programs that deliver maximum returns on your investment? Most of us experienced in urban forestry can answer these questions, but over the past decade, two barriers blocked progress in many places where urban forestry could grow.

Municipal policymakers tend to overlook the tangible benefits that trees bring to their communities. Quick access to current and credible research on the impacts of urban forestry makes it easier for advocates to persuade policymakers to invest in community trees. Additionally, while the internet is stuffed with master plans and case studies, most urban forestry professionals don’t have the capacity to thoroughly analyze the best research or best practices, much less figure out how best to apply them in their own communities.

The Vibrant Cities Lab does these jobs so others don’t have to.

The Vibrant Cities Lab website has a wealth of good information. How do content providers submit to the site for consideration?

We welcome content suggestions, both additions and subtractions, which can be forwarded to urban[at]fs.fed.us.

Quarterly, these and other content recommendations will be reviewed by the Forest Service’s Urban Forest Technology & Science Delivery Team, and the site is updated accordingly.

The urban forestry toolkit section of the website offers a very simple step-by-step process for resource managers and stakeholders. Share some experiences you’ve learned of from those who have used this tool.

First, let’s emphasize that every step in the toolkit is drawn from actual experience – the accumulated best practices from communities of all sizes. In that sense, the toolkit has already been tested in the real world.

VCL visitors report using the toolkit to explore possible changes in their own programs. Currently, we find most site users seeking information about inventory, assessment and monitoring. Others are using principles in the toolkit’s equity “step” to consider a faith-based approach in their states. A state forester keeps VCL “live” on his computer for easy access to research that can help him answer questions from the public and policymakers. Another state coordinator is exploring options for groups of municipal leaders to work jointly through the assessment tool. Her goal is to use this collaborative approach so that they can learn from each other and better understand gaps in their own programs.

Since its pre-launch six months ago at the Partners in Community Forestry conference, more than 6,000 users have visited the site, accumulating nearly 33,000 page views.

The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) is listed among your “leading organizations and coalitions that drive urban forestry.” What areas do you believe conservation districts can grow their support for urban forestry efforts?

Conservation districts work at the intersection of people and nature – helping people conserve environmental values and assuring that a healthy environment serves people. That’s as important to city dwellers as it is to rural folks.

Many districts, along with NACD, already engage in a variety of activities related to protecting and growing urban trees. In line with their traditional networking role, some districts link up with their state urban forestry coordinator to make sure that residents have ready access to the professional resources they need. Others support local efforts to identify and reduce tree-killing pests like the emerald ash borer, and train residents to become stewards of their community trees.

The problems facing urban and rural community forests share similar roots. In cities and towns, a growing population means less land for trees. In rural villages, declining population means fewer resources to care for trees. Conservation districts were created to anticipate and help address these problems.

Natural resource professionals often cite better mental health as one of the benefits of trees where people live. What do we know (so far) about the connection between urban forests/green space and mental health?

Scientists are constantly improving their research methods – measuring cortisol levels [the “stress” hormone] as people walk from city streets into natural areas; even doing brain scans as people are exposed to virtual images of nature. Some of the latest findings show that classroom views to green landscapes cause significantly better performance on tests of attention and also increase student’s recovery from stressful experiences. Likewise, for adults, views from windows help reduce stress, boost productivity, improve job satisfaction, and help workers stay more attentive.

Mental health is one of nearly a dozen “impacts” identified on the website, all with several case studies. Name another urban forestry impact largely overlooked by the general public.

Most folks don’t understand that the presence of trees in a neighborhood is actually associated with lower crime rates. A study in New Haven found that a 10 percent increase in tree canopy was accompanied by a 15 percent decrease in violent crime, and a 14 percent decrease in property crime. Similar results were found in Baltimore, with a 12 percent drop in all outdoor crimes for each 10 percent increase in tree canopy.

Audience helps determine impact of messaging. In general, should resource professionals focus on communicating with the general public that interacts with the urban forest on a daily basis, or the policymakers who oversee budgets?

Trick question! The answer is both. Policymakers don’t understand the benefits urban forestry can bring to their communities. When they do learn that investing in trees helps achieve a wide range of economic, environmental and social goals, they’re more inclined to consider these opportunities.

Elected officials can’t act on their own, so, the public needs to understand what urban forestry initiatives mean to them as individuals. Likewise, many programs depend on public volunteers to help assess and care for their urban trees.

What has been the most enjoyable part of developing this resource?

I’m tempted to say data entry. But everyone knows that couldn’t be true.

On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the opportunity to read and absorb so much intriguing research documents – more than 500 to date – and to learn about the ingenuity and passion of people committed to urban forests in communities around the nation. They’ve accomplished so much, and it’s an honor to share their stories with others.

This article was featured in the Summer 2018 edition of Forestry Notes. Learn more about Forestry Notes, including how to subscribe, on our webpage.

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