Urban Forest Governance in the Face of Calamities: A Canadian Perspective

Cecil Konijnendijk Cecil Konijnendijk
Faculty of Forestry, The University of British Columbia
Learn more about Cecil Konijnendijk.

There is increasing interest in understanding the governance of urban forests, that is, the ways in which we make strategic decisions about our cities’ trees and woodlands. Urban forest governance is often complex, involving a wide range of so-called ‘actors’. Obviously municipal urban foresters or other green space professionals have an important role to play, but many other individuals and organizations are involved as well.

In a study funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a project team at the University of British Columbia is currently investigating urban forest governance in selected Canadian municipalities. Rather than focusing on the ‘usual’ study subjects such as Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver, instead, we selected four smaller, yet still very urban municipalities: Oakville (ON) and Surrey (BC) are typical larger municipalities situated in a greater metropolitan area, while Fort McMurray (part of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, AB) and Prince George (BC) are population centers in Canada’s forested interior.

We are especially interested in how municipalities deal with the sudden loss of urban forest canopy, or at least urban forest functionality. In the case of Fort McMurray, for example, devastating wildlife in 2016 destroyed large parts of the town as well as its tree population. Prince George and Oakville had to deal with major pest outbreaks (of Mountain pine beetle respectively Emerald ash borer). Surrey, finally, has had issues with storm damage, while also being faced with rapid population growth and densification at the expense of urban trees.

Our initial results show that having a solid urban forestry program (and strategy) in place can help municipalities to better handle calamities. The importance of strong partnerships, for example with not-for-profits, emergency services, and consultants, when disaster strikes, emerged from all four case studies. In Prince George, which has a strong forest industry, the municipality could draw upon substantial forestry expertise from the private sector and others during recovery operations after the pine beetle outbreak. In Oakville, efforts to deal with Emerald ash borer were supported substantially by a local not-for-profit called Oakville Green.

It also is important to have sound information systems in place, supporting both immediate disaster response as well as longer-term recovery of the urban forest. Oakville, for example, has recently developed a strong, real-time information system for its tree population, in response to experiences from the Emerald ash borer outbreak. Finally, the role of ‘urban forestry champions’ should be mentioned. Some of the municipalities were fortunate to have politicians that promoted urban forestry and tree planting. The presence of a strong and well-connected urban forester within the organization also seems to have been a major success factor.

Although all municipalities responded to calamities by expanding their urban forestry programs, recruiting more staff, and developing strategies and plans, unfortunately sometimes these changes were short-lived.

Final results from this study will become available later this year.

Footnote: Below are resources of strong urban forestry programs and strategies that PNW-ISA members can learn best practices from.

New Westminster (BC): https://www.newwestcity.ca/services/trees/urban-forest-management-strategy.

Melbourne, Australia:
https://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/community/greening-the-city/urban-forest/Pages/urban-forest-strategy.aspx.