A team of researchers is asking for data from cities and towns across Indiana to assemble the first state-wide map of urban forests and green spaces.
Researchers from Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, theDavey Resource Group and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Community and Urban Forestry Program are asking municipalities across the state to share their urban forestry data to build the publicly available online map and data resource focused on urban green infrastructure.
“Our goal is lofty, because, really, there isn’t anybody trying to do a statewide urban forest map,” said Sarah Mincey, clinical associate professor at IU’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “The motivation for the whole project is the fact that you can’t manage any kind of natural resource unless you know what you have.”
Urban forests are made up of all the trees and associated vegetation within the bounds of a town or city. That means thousands, if not millions, of Hoosiers walk or drive within urban forests without knowing.
Mincey, an affiliated researcher for Indiana University’s ERI, said urban forests provide significant benefits to people who live in cities.
Although trees stand still and silent, they constantly work to improve the lives of humans living nearby in unexpected ways.
“There’s a lot of biophysical benefits from these trees,” said Mincey. “Trees are a huge benefit for stormwater management in cities. They really slow the pulse of a storm event and the negative impacts that come from flooding. Carbon sequestration, of course. Similarly, trees take up pollutants, nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxides and these kinds of pollutants that we get from cities.”
Mincey said urban forestry should be a vital part of a community’s climate change mitigation plan because of the obvious benefits and the way it changes the perception of those types of plans.
“Often, when we’re talking about climate change solutions it feels like we’re being told, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ and we’re being told not to drive our cars and to try to cut down on consumption and all these things that feel like things are being taken away from us,” said Mincey. “And I think urban forestry has the opportunity to actually feel the opposite and be doing a wonderful service for mitigation. If we can get people involved in urban forest management, we are simultaneously contributing to solutions for climate change, but also really making people feel pretty good about engaging in a green activity.”
Mincey said urban forests can also affect communities indirectly. Simple factors like tree shade can cause a cascade of effects that shapes the behavior of people living nearby.
“So, there’s really great research about how trees provide shade along sidewalks, and as opposed to a sidewalk where there’s no trees, you might find a significant difference in terms of peoples’ willingness to walk to a nearby location versus drive because of comfort. So that affects peoples’ time outside, and we know that, generally, being outside is a healthy thing. It affects peoples’ capacity then to potentially meet their neighbors. You never know where that might go in terms of connecting people and building social ties between community members.”
Urban forests also have positive impacts on the human body and the mental health of those who live near them. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, being around trees and urban forests improves mental and physical health. Spending time in urban forests gives people more energy, helps them heal more quickly from physical ailments, and reduces blood pressure and stress.
Urban forests can also have a positive economic benefit in a community. Mincey said trees in rights-of-way, in front of properties and on private land typically increase property values. Some researchers have found that landscaping that includes trees can increase property values by up to 20%.
Well-placed urban forests can reduce the air conditioning needs of nearby buildings by up to 30% and save energy used for heating by up to 50%. Additionally, landscaping involving trees can improve land value by up to 20%, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
From a biodiversity perspective, urban forests also help provide habitats for animals like birds, increasing the populations of species that sometimes struggle to thrive in urban environments.
A comprehensive and publicly available database and map could help city or town officials plan their own urban forests or track tree health trends to maintain their own forest.
The data could even help track or prevent the spread of invasive pests.
“For example, we might want to understand what is the condition of the urban forest across state. And we can dig down into the data and represent the average condition of trees across the state to see patterns,” Mincey said. “I think the power behind that is then that [DNR] will now have the ability to say, ‘What are the needs of our urban foresters across the state of Indiana,’ and the CUF coordinator will be in a better position to access grants and find more funding to disseminate to cities across the state and meet their needs.”
Mincey hopes to have the map and database online within the next six months. She said she and other researchers then hope to expand the urban forestry database to include private institutional spaces and other facilities.