The Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative and international collaboration of anti-hunger, anti-poverty, and nature conservation organizations focused on promoting landscape approaches to solving the world's most pressing problems.
In a side event that kicked off the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, an impressive group of partners all echoed one key message: holistic, place-based policy approaches are possible, necessary, and overdue.
“People do live in places, they live in spaces, they live in territories. They do not live in sectors.” So Stefan Schmitz, Deputy Director-General and Commissioner “One World – No Hunger” Initiative – German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), opened the discussion on “Territorial Development – Managing Landscapes for the Rural Future” at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn on Saturday, December 1st.
The call to develop development policies and plans at the territorial level – “place-based” strategies – is not new. What is new is the blending of more than three decades of lessons from integrated development programs around the world with the improvement of data availability, tools and education for landscape management, the spread of devolution as a political reality worldwide, and the inspirational power of the Sustainable Development Goals. These factors and more were highlighted by the panelists in this side event organized by BMZ, CIRAD, FAO, OECD, and the European Commission.
WATCH THE SIDE EVENT IN FULL
Side Event 1: Territorial Development – Managing Landscapes for the Rural Future - YouTube
Bridging, not breaking, silos
The management of landscapes is an integral part of territorial development going beyond administrative boundaries and building on the potentials of a territory and its inhabitants. This is not about tearing down sectoral silos. Specialization and sector expertise is quite valuable. As Patrick Herlant, Policy Officer Rural Development, Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture at the European Commission, said “All this is also linked to a way of working of course. Another big challenge is of course as we have been working in the past mainly through sectoral approaches, we would like to consolidate and even strengthen those sectoral resources, sectoral achievements. It’s not about changing things, but just adding and complementing, strengthening.”
Spatial data and foresight processes inform more effective sectorial policies
Thanks to improvements in data collection and management, both technologically and politically, around the world, it is now more possible than ever to use data-driven approaches to planning at the territorial and landscape levels. How to make this feasible for multi-stakeholder partnerships is the goal of CIRAD’s work on Foresight, and a critical component of the success of integrated territorial approaches to the SDGs going forward. “Territorial perspective is the way to have a more integrated approach to have more effective sectorial policies,” says Jean-Michel Sourisseau, a researcher at CIRAD. “To think of the future, anticipation, foresight, for us is very important. Especially when the situation with the stakeholders is very tense. If we imagine what’s going to happen in the future, it is much easier to speak with the people, and the conversation is much smarter.”
An answer to failures of technocratic and top-down approaches
Jordan Treakle, Territorial Development Programme Manager at FAO, noted that the territorial development approach within that organization emerged in direct response to the “common failures of traditional top-down technocratic approaches to policy formulation and program implementation.” As he said, it was clear that there was a need to put marginalized stakeholders at the center of development processes, “as the actual drivers of development in their local communities and landscapes.” This kind of approach strengthens the social cohesion of territories, which in turn strengthens the long-term lasting impact of development policies.
Both Treakle and Sourisseau emphasized the need for analysis of the current situation to identify the stakeholders that need to be involved in development policy planning, and especially to assess their assets and needs in order to enable everyone to participate on equal footing. Of course, due to conflicting interests among stakeholders at local level, strong leadership and good governance and capable local authorities are necessary to mediate power asymmetries and inequalities among resource users.
How to support ongoing capacity development for territorial approaches
Territorial development and landscape management involve a multitude of stakeholders, all with different capacities, training, and influence. Institutions and individuals have to be equipped with the right mindset, tools, skills, and networks in order to participate in and manage development and cross-sector, multi-scale processes on the landscape and territorial levels. Sara Scherr, President of EcoAgriculture Partners, highlighted four major means of specifically supporting these kinds of capacities: intentional landscape leadership training (mindset); inclusive, participatory tools for implementing territorial and landscape approaches in planning and management (tools); regional dialogues for peer-to-peer learning and sharing (skills); and regional learning networks (networks).
If we wish to avoid the technocratic, top-down pitfalls of earlier pushes for integrated development, we must focus on truly empowering local leaders to drive these processes, and on shifting the mindsets of leaders at all levels through intentional integrated landscape leadership training.
An upcoming Digital Summit hosted by the Global Landscapes Forum will bring together new voices from across Africa to discuss how to engage the private sector in integrated landscape management (ILM).
The summit builds on an engaging discussion forum on the topic at the Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi in August this year. Sharing cases from new geographies, and from both private sector and the landscape partnership convener perspectives, it aims to further explore the benefits – and identify and address some of the challenges – of working across sectors to build sustainable solutions at the landscape scale.
One key observation in the Nairobi discussion forum – organized by the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative, with support from the Government of the Netherlands – was that value chain approaches are not sufficient to address sustainability issues, and integrated landscape approaches are required. Julius Rono of the Solidaridad Network shared about his organization’s work helping translate the economic benefits of ILM to people in the private sector. Solidaridad used to work mainly on certification processes within supply chains, but soon realized that a whole-landscape approach made much more sense.
For Mao Amis, who runs the South Africa-based think tank African Centre for a Green Economy and is a panelist in the upcoming summit, the idea resonates. “If we’re to protect natural capital, we have to balance the various competing demands on the landscape,” he says. “So we need to take a systems approach.”
Another point from the Nairobi discussion was that landscape management can be a de-risking strategy for financing development. “A number of multinationals have already had to close plants in some areas because of water scarcity,” said Caroline van Leenders of the Dutch Enterprise Agency. “And if you’re an investor and have your money in those kinds of projects, then you have a problem. So it makes sense for these institutions to start investing in solutions.”
Amis notes that these risks for businesses and investors may also be reputational, and cites the example of flower farming in Kenya: “When consumers in Europe started asking questions about where their flowers are coming from,” he says, “all of a sudden companies were under scrutiny about their labor practices and relationship with natural resources.”
“Everyone wants coordination, but nobody wants to be coordinated.”
These words from Nora Berrahmouni, Senior Forestry Officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, at the start of a session on coordination and advocacy at the recent AFR100 Annual Partners Meeting (APM), artfully pose the challenge at the heart of the proliferation of sustainable development and restoration initiatives in Africa.
Opportunities and challenges grow as initiatives proliferate
In 2014, the LPFN convened representatives from civil society, the private sector, and national and subnational governments from more than two dozen African Countries, along with supporters from international NGOs, multilateral agencies, and European governments, to discuss challenges and opportunities to create, preserve, strengthen and support sustainable landscapes, through landscape-level, locally-led multi-stakeholder partnerships.
They used those deliberations as an opportunity for priority-setting, and created a collectively-endorsed agenda based on those priorities. The action agenda is called the African Landscapes Action Plan, or ALAP. They pledged their organizations to advance specific action items within the agenda, and to help advance ALAP as a whole where possible. The African Union endorsed ALAP as a pillar of its African Resilient Landscapes Initiative. Then, in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed at the UN General Assembly in September and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, AFR100, was announced at the Global Landscapes Forum in Paris in December.
The large number of regional landscape programs and initiatives active in Africa (ALAP andAFR100, but also Great Green Wall, TerrAfrica Partnership, IUCN’s SUSTAIN-Africa, et al.) has led to concern over potential redundancies, competition for resources, and “reinventing the wheel.” To capitalize on strengths and promote synergies across the different initiatives, greater emphasis must be placed on knowledge-sharing, coordinated monitoring, and more shared capacity-development opportunities. I should note that NEPAD is working admirably with limited resources to support coordination, but cannot force initiative leaders/funders to build shared systems, and is not resourced to build these themselves.
Joining forces for long-term sustainability in Africa
In 2017, the LPFN reconvened the partner organizations of the original ALAP and other champions of integrated landscape management in Africa, in Addis Ababa at a learning event called the African Landscapes Dialogue. As part of the agenda, organizations reported on and discussed progress on the action items, and refreshed the agenda. These leaders added the seventh action area on coordination.
They noted that knowledge-sharing, at the national, sub-national and landscape levels, between those engaged in these various initiatives will be critical, to avoid perceived competition for the limited resources available to them.
Specifically, knowledge systems for landscape-level restoration planning must be designed so they can be made available to and useful for multi-stakeholder landscape management partnerships with ambitions including but also beyond restoring degraded land. They can support informed planning and decision-making about locating protected areas, improving agricultural operations, and increasing water availability for urban or agricultural uses, for example, that reduce land degradation and pressure on natural resources generally.
Low-cost next steps towards coordination
In response to Nora Berrahmouni’s challenge at the AFR100 APM, I suggested some next steps for coordination between AFR100, ALAP and other regional initiatives:
Organize the 2019 partners meeting and 2019 ALAP dialogue jointly between our various secretariats, pooling funding and focusing specifically on a facilitated agenda to achieve tangible coordination outcomes, such as increased capacity for holistic implementation among landscape leaders, joint projects to test co-implementation of various initiative objectives, and plans for shared knowledge systems.
Undertake network mapping of Africa’s landscape programs and implementers, ideally with ownership/leadership from NEPAD. Such a map would allow project and program designers, policymakers, investors, and donors to identify quickly and easily available implementation partners: those already convening stakeholders for collaborative management, in the area of interest.
Establish a coordination committee, with thematic working groups, between the focal points and secretariats of the many various sustainability and restoration initiatives in Africa, with a goal of increasing transparency and reducing duplication of effort.
These modest ideas can get us closer to alignment as we work to design and implement the projects and policy and financing changes needed to achieve the big ambitions at the center of each regional initiative. Meanwhile, of course, developing a longer-term vision for collaborative knowledge systems for sustainable landscape management in Africa remains vital, and the LPFN and its members will have a key role to play.
The “worm is turning” as operators look to regenerative agriculture to confront a perfect storm of challenges.
Many regions look to North America as the example for successful high-volume production models. In this changing world agriculture is progressively seeing the value for whole systems accounting and the 3 pillars for sustainability; people, planet and profits. The modern chemical ag model is found to be failing on all of these promises. What we are witnessing are the many “unintended consequences” from applying mechanical thinking to biological systems. The embrace of post-modern regenerative agricultural systems is shifting the conversation in food production landscapes.
For myself, my key driver has always been: how do we get detrimental chemicals out of the food and environment, sequester GHG, grow quality food for animals and people, all while ensuring producers are being justly rewarded for their efforts?
Nicole Masters and Montanan rancher Steve Charter digging deeper to understand how soil dynamics influences above-ground production. Steve is one of a growing number of ranchers who are putting life back into degraded rangeland. Photo Credit: Laura Nelson, freelance writer, Montana.
Integrity Soils systems approach
I originally started out working in community gardens, horticulture and small wetlands in New Zealand in 1999. Now, I work with a team of agroecologists across North America and Australasia; focusing on large scale food and fibre producers. With a background in ecology and soil science the rigorousness of Regenerative Agriculture is appealing. Norman Uphoff has remarked that post-modern agriculture “is not anti-science. It is the most modern agriculture because it builds carefully and creatively on advances in scientific knowledge particularly in the disciplines of biology, ecology and microbiology.” In this era of information, we have more tools and understanding around the benefits of working with natural systems.
We are results based, with our clients managing close to one million acres; acreage which continues to grow through word of mouth. We deliver workshops and presentations to thousands of producers every year. We are part of a growing community of people who are facilitating a rapidly expanding world of quality food production and biological economies.
Norman Uphoff has remarked that post-modern agriculture “is not anti-science. It is the most modern agriculture because it builds carefully and creatively on advances in scientific knowledge particularly in the disciplines of biology, ecology and microbiology.”
My team is trained in behavioral change and organizational learning; applying ecological principles to agricultural settings. Our approach focuses on connecting with producers; what their goals and personal drivers? It’s a more personal and in-depth approach in a domain which has been traditionally more technical and chemically-oriented; the “command and control” paradigm. In part, that may explain why 75% of my team is made up by women.
Tools for transformation
Most producers see themselves as land stewards. What has been missing however, has been the structural supports and tools to help them achieve these goals. My team trains and coaches producers in honing their observations; asking the “why” questions around input choices, and deepening their understanding of causal factors behind many challenges; such as weeds, pests and diseases. Increasingly producers are asking; how can we manage landscapes better for biodiversity, water and resilience in an increasingly unpredictable climate?
What we have found is through encouraging producers to trial new methods, and providing support and benchmarking, they see the results for themselves. Becoming aware of how chemicals and soluble fertilizers have been leading them down a slippery path to increased external reliance, is a door that once opened, can never be closed again.
Through working with and enhancing natural cycles; producers can dramatically reduce inputs and improve crop, animal and soil health. For example, when working with large-scale broadacre croppers, in the first year they are able to reduce their nitrogen by 30-70%, herbicides by 30%, fungicides and chemical pesticides by 100%, with little to no yield loss. That’s right, we can substantially drop those costly and detrimental inputs through a focus on increasing efficiencies through harnessing the microbiological workforce.
The Worm is Turning
Twenty years ago many producers seemed motivated to change due to a personal crisis such as health concerns or crop failures due to climatic extremes. Now, we live in an increasing global community, and producers face more scrutiny about land practices. Now the conversation is shifting, to include larger top performance producers. They see a perfect storm coming; with soil health and organic matter declines, consumer signals, increasing costs and pest pressures. They are sharp operators and a joy to work alongside.
There is still community ridicule to ride, however the producers we work with wear big enough boots to know that the tide is shifting their way. Neighbors continue to look over the fence with chemical agronomists feeding stories of fear to keep them in line. However, we are heartened by what we are witnessing. There is a growing number of producers who see new opportunities through working closer with nature, giving rural communities more confidence around the future of agriculture
Regionally-unique shared challenges make collaborative action vital to sustainable landscapes across Mesoamerica. This conference will catalyze it.
The upcoming Mesoamerican Landscapes Dialogue is a golden opportunity to connect and learn from landscape leaders and multi-sector leaders across the region. It will be held in Costa Rica, on the campus of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) from July 2 to July 6, 2018. Modeled in large part on the successfulAfrican Landscapes Dialogue held in Ethiopia in March of 2017, the event in Costa Rica will be much more than your run-of-the-mill conference. It’s a select group coming together to share advice, devise solutions to common challenges, reframe obstacles into opportunities, inspire one other, and, I hope, discover new ways to collaborate – with a bias toward action. As a co-organizer of the event, it’s been a long road to get here, and I’m beyond thrilled for it to commence.
Weaving networks critical to regional sustainability
Anyone who knows me understands that I’m practically obsessed with collaboration and social learning: a self-professed network weaver. The people and institutions coming together at the Mesoamerican Landscapes Dialogue – some work mostly on sustainable commodities and agricultural supply chains, others focus on forestry or forest restoration, and still others are dedicated to wildlife conservation or biological corridors – all understand the need for collaboration to achieve integrated landscape management.
The author stands in the Xapper Forest, Guatemala.
And as anyone who works with land (or politics, or culture) knows, many issues are unique to the region. Mexico and Central America is a region that, while enduring challenge after challenge, is exceptionally resilient and has among the most diverse arrays of land tenure arrangements and opportunities for local community management available anywhere on Earth. Mesoamerica is also extraordinarily and increasingly vulnerable to climate change-related pressures such as drought, hurricanes, and invasive pests that wreak havoc on entire landscapes. These pressures combine to adversely affect people’s lives in many ways, from food security to shelter to access to markets, and more.
Listening and learning from each other
I’m excited to tackle these challenges and seize upon opportunities at the Dialogue, to help reimagine and reframe ways of working together, and, perhaps more than anything, to learn from the people working day in and day out on the ground, including a select group of women – Ford Foundation grantees who I’ll have the privilege to interview about their expectations and experiences at the Dialogue itself. With this in mind, the Dialogue is just that, a chance for each individual to listen more than talk and to build off others’ ideas and inspiration.
Each of us can consider tough questions ranging from the collective (how can we make a dent in wicked challenges such as climate change, food security, or biodiversity conservation?) to the individual (how can I better utilize my own talents to contribute to optimal landscape management while finding professional fulfillment?).
I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and learning from the diverse experiences of colleagues who will help me to explore and better solidify my own understanding of the history of landscape management in Latin America while focusing together on establishing audacious goals – goals, with concrete action steps, that will simultaneously improve conditions for people, food, and nature in the Mesoamerica of tomorrow. Together, we’ll get to examine the full range of governance needed to realize our full potential – learning firsthand about the role of local communities, unlikely heroes of all types, and examples of courageous leadership from community development councils, grassroots NGO’s, and public sector officials. We’ll consider the role of multi-actor platforms in striving for collective impact in the region and new ways to organize ourselves. My fellow participants and I will consider the challenges and opportunities and propose ways to more carefully consider the role of gender in landscape-level initiatives. And we’ll even get to geek out a bit by learning about the ever-expanding range of innovative rural production systems, tools, methods, and technologies – as well as novel ways for enterprise and entrepreneurship to expand access to markets, investment in landscapes, and sustainable financing to achieve ambitious targets such as large-scale restoration. Further, we’ve shaped the Dialogue to be able to spend a significant amount of time and energy on crafting an action plan and concrete next steps that carry the energy from the event beyond the CATIE campus itself.
Becoming better prepared to be an integrator
As an individual participant, I know I can contribute to the shared knowledge production during the event, but I also have a duty to go out afterwards and cross-pollinate, carrying grains of ideas, seeds of possibility, and inspiration to a variety of other organizations and networks. The Dialogue promises to assure that participants don’t simply just learn “stuff” but come away both inspired and better prepared to be an integrator back home, a critical role in connecting multiple specialties and fostering new forms of collaboration. And, I hope the Dialogue also leads to a variety of strong and weak ties, new people I can count on and help refer others to, as we’re all in this together. Such network magic fascinates me and keeps me going day to day, and it’s why I’m looking forward to what promises to be a fantastic Mesoamerican Landscapes Dialogue this July.
Version en español
Tejiendo nuevas conexiones en el Diálogo sobre Paisajes Sostenibles en Mesoamérica
Los desafíos que caracterizan la región de Mesoamérica hacen que la acción colectiva sea esencial para la sostenibilidad de sus paisajes diversos. Ésta conferencia servirá como un catalizador para la colaboración a lo largo de la región.
El próximo Diálogo sobre Paisajes Sostenibles en Mesoamérica es una oportunidad única para conectar y aprender de líderes multi-sectoriales de iniciativas de manejo integral de paisajes en toda la región. Se llevará a cabo en Costa Rica, en el campo del Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) entre el 2 y 6 de julio del presente año . El evento ha sido diseñado utilizando como modelo el Diálogo sobre Paisajes en África, el cual se llevó a cabo en Etiopía en marzo del 2017. El l evento en Costa Rica será mucho más que cualquier conferencia ordinaria porque hay un grupo selectivo yexperimentado que se reunirá para compartir consejos, desarrollar soluciones a los desafíos más sobresalientes, redefinir y transformar los obstáculos hacia oportunidades, inspirar uno al otro, y espero, descubrir maneras nuevas e innovadoras para colaborar, siempre con el deseo de traducir las ideas a lo tangible. Como co-organizador del evento, entiendo que recorrimos un camino largo para llegar a este momento, y estoy muy emocionado para que comience.
Tejiendo redes – una clave para asegurar la sustentabilidad regional
Quienes me conocen entienden que estoy profundamente interesado – casi obsesionado – con los temas de la colaboración y el aprendizaje social: autonombrándome un “tejedor de redes” en las comunidades virtuales y presenciales. La gente y las instituciones que se reúnen en el Diálogo representan una diversidad de temas, varios con sus enfoques específicos. Algunos se especializan en las cadenas de valor de productos agrícolas sostenibles, otros tienen enfoque en la restauración de los bosques o la forestería, y otros se dedican a la conservación de la vida silvestre y los corredores biológicos. Pero todos tenemos algo en común, entendemos la importancia de la colaboración para lograr un manejo eficaz e integrado de paisajes.
Y como sabe cualquiera persona que trabaja con cuestiones de la tierra (o las políticas o cultura), muchos temas tienen un sabor especial, con una relevancia particular a la región. Las regiónes de México y Centroamérica son áreas que, aunque enfrentan constantes retos , muestran una fortaleza y capacidad de superarse y seguir adelante. Mesoamérica cuenta con una diversidad de arreglos y políticas en términos de la tenencia de la tierra, dejando distintas oportunidades para el manejo local y la gobernanza de territorios – entre los más diversos en la planeta. Además, Mesoamérica es cada día más vulnerable a las presiones del cambio climático como sequías, huracanes y especies invasoras, causando daños extremos en paisajes enteros. Estas amenazas combinanadas afectan de manera adversa la vida de las personas de muchas formas – desde la inseguridad alimentaria, daños en las viviendas, hasta limitar acceso a los mercados, entre otros problemas.
Escuchando y aprendiendo de cada uno
Me motiva enfrentar estos retos y aprovechar las diferentes oportunidades que nos presenta el Diálogo para ayudar a redefinir y reimaginar las maneras de trabajar en conjunto como una alianza y quizás más que todo, aprender de la gente que trabaja diariamente con estos temas, con el suelo del paisaje bajo sus pies; incluyendo un grupo destacado de mujeres, seleccionadas por la Fundación Ford para asistir el evento, y a quienes voy a tener el privilegio de entrevistar con el fin de conocer sobre sus expectativas y experiencias en el Diálogo. Vale mencionar que el Diálogo sirve como un espacio para cada asistente escuchar más que hablar y construir algo especial basado en las ideas de otros y la inspiración de estar reunidos.
Podemos cada uno considerar y enfrentar la realidad de algunos interrogantes supremamente difíciles, desde lo colectivo (¿cómo podemos contribuir con nuestro granito de arena ante desafíos tan monstruosos como el cambio climático, la seguridad alimentaria, o la conservación de la biodiversidad?) hasta lo individual (¿cómo puedo aplicar mejor mis propios talentos para contribuir al manejo de un paisaje optimizado mientras que encontramos un sentido de crecimiento y autorrealización profesional?).
Espero con ganas la oportunidad de aprender sobre las experiencias diversas de colegas profesionales quienes me ayudarán a explorar y consolidar mi propio entendimiento y conocimiento sobre la historia del manejo de los paisajes en Latinoamérica, al mismo tiempo que nos enfocamos en establecer metas audaces y ambiciosas – metas con pasos concretos para tomar acciónes que servirán para mejorar de manera tangible, las condiciones para la gente, la alimentación y la naturaleza en la Mesoamérica de mañana. Vamos a poder explorar juntos el rango ancho de maneras de gobernanza necesarias para lograr nuestro potencial, aprendiendo de primera mano sobre el rol de las comunidades locales, héroes de toda clase, y ejemplos del liderazgo de coraje desde los concejos de desarrollo comunitario hasta las ONGs de base hasta las instituciones públicas del gobierno. Consideraremos que el rol de las plataformas multisectoriales es buscar un impacto colectivo en la región y nuevas formas de organizarnos. Entre todos los participantes, vamos a poder considerar retos, oportunidades y proponer formas para considerar con atención especial el rol de género en las iniciativas a nivel del paisaje. Vamos a tener el lujo de ver una cantidad de innovaciones para la producción rural, las herramientas, los métodos y las tecnologías, además de ver formas novedosas para expandir el acceso a los mercados a través del emprendimiento y las empresas, la inversión en los paisajes y financiamiento sostenible para lograr los objetivos de los desafíos de gran escala de restauración forestal. También hemos diseñado un espacio intencional en el Diálogo para poder dedicar tiempo y energía en hacer planes de acción que lleven la intención del evento más allá del campus de CATIE y Costa Rica.
Mejorando mi preparación para servir como integrador
Como un participante individual, entiendo que puedo contribuir bastante a la producción del conocimiento compartido durante el evento; pero también es mi deber después del evento de salir y polinizar, llevando los granos de ideas, las semillas de posibilidad y la inspiración a una variedad de otras organizaciones y redes. El Diálogo asegurará que los asistentes no simplemente aprendan y llenen sus cerebros con información pero, que salgancon mucha más inspiración y ánimo que antes, y con mejor preparación para ser integradores en sus organizaciones y comunidades; un rol clave para conectar a los especialistas y expertos, y criar e incubar nuevas formas de colaborar. A fin de cuentas, espero que el Diálogo estimule una variedad de conexiones fuertes e incipientes, nueva gente con quien puedan contar y puedan conectarse con otros porque todos estamos en esto juntos. Este tipo de “magia de las redes” me fascina y me da energía día tras día, y por eso espero con interés lo que tiene mucha promesa – un fantástico Diálogo Mesoamericano este julio.
18th century urban growth in Europe had already begun to encompass nearby forests – Epping [London], Grunewald [Berlin], Fontainebleau [Paris]. In the US, Thomas Jefferson, disheartened by rampant cutting of trees in the swamplands of the new capital, confided to a friend that he wished he could post guards around each tree to prevent cutting for firewood. As Napoleon built tree-lined boulevards throughout 19th century Paris, pre-Civil War horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing declared that the “first duty of an inhabitant of forlorn neighborhoods is to use all possible influence to have the streets planted with trees.”
That sentiment persists today, still driven by the conviction that trees soften the hard edges of the built environment, and foster well-being among the people who live there.
But worldwide, today it’s about more than trees. We think about sustaining entire urban forests – in the US, there’s 140 million acres (56 million hectares) of metro areas where 80 percent of Americans live. What is an “urban forest?” What can it do for us? How can we extend the benefits of trees to all?
Vibrant Cities Lab (vibrantcitieslab.com), supported by the US Forest Service in partnership with American Forests and the National Association of Regional Councils, helps answer these questions and shows how any community can grow and sustain their own urban forest. It’s a free website offering the latest, expert-reviewed research on benefits of trees, as well as case studies, a community assessment and goal setting tool, and step-by-step guidance on how communities can create and sustain healthy urban forests.
A screenshot from vibrantcitieslab.com.
Modern scientists have sketched a clearer picture of the many benefits trees deliver where people live. A thriving tree canopy reduces air pollution and related illnesses, like asthma. Cooling shade abates the urban heat island effect, helping to reduce the annual toll of 7,000 deaths in super-heated cities. Thoughtful urban forestry initiatives aim to calm traffic, manage stormwater, conserve energy, reduce stress, even improve academic performance.
These benefits have been measured but they’re not yet embraced by planners, policymakers and the public at large. Nor have different agencies learned how to advance their own goals by investments in urban forestry – from parks and public health to police, economic development, transportation and public works.
Diners enjoy Larimer Square in Denver, Colorado: shady, cool and pleasant even in the summer heat thanks to an urban forest canopy.
This knowledge gap can block progress and deprive residents of the benefits of urban trees. Indeed, research by the National Association of Regional Councils  has shown that lack of alignment and coordination among municipal agencies, their stakeholders and the public at large present the biggest obstacle to successful urban forestry initiatives.
But in communities where knowledge is shared, the public engaged and agencies aligned, urban forestry makes a big difference to residents, especially in lower income neighborhoods. In Portland, Oregon children aged 4 to 12 living in neighborhoods with street trees show lower prevalence of asthma and missed 7,380 fewer days of school. Not surprisingly, Portland’s urban forestry program involves direct participation by city planners, health officials, development experts, the public works, parks and transportation departments.
Vibrant Cities Lab (VCL) aims to help communities of all sizes achieve these kinds of results. Designed for easy use by policymakers, practitioners and the public, VCL is becoming a valuable resource for community leaders and residents who want to put their trees to work. As County Executive and chair of the National Association of Counties Transportation Committee Gary Moore put it, “trees are the hardest workers on our payroll, and they contribute to just about everything we do. If we take care of them, they’ll take care of us for just a few dollars a day.”