By: Richard J. Magill, Magill & Associates, Inc.
The Human Dimensions of Urban Forestry


This is the first in a series of six articles that will explore the various interactions and outcomes that result from human contact with our life-sustaining urban forests. These articles will explore the impacts of the urban forest on transportation, local economies, social interaction, health and safety, and urban planning and policy.

In order to better understand the impacts that our urban forests have on the human condition and conversely the effects that humans have on the forest, an introductory discussion about urban forests and urban forestry follows.

The Urban Forest

The Plants: Generally, urban forests are found in or adjacent to populated areas and are comprised of collective masses of trees, woody shrubs, annual and perennial flowers, and various types of grasses. Trees largely play the leading role in the urban forest ecosystem but certainly the other plant species play important supporting roles. Urban forests occur on both public and private lands and vary greatly in appearance. Some may be “remnant forests”: small groups of trees preserved during development that become important open space and greenbelts. Other sites are designed landscapes made up of a thoughtful composition of trees and other plants, typically found in urban parks, transitional areas (edges between different uses) and residential landscapes. Some forests thrive on undeveloped land and may be an unintended collection of plant volunteers and weedy vegetation. Even though each of the forests described above differ aesthetically and ecologically, it is widely known that trees and plants in all forms and settings provide critically important environmental benefits such as:

  • Sustainable Carbon Dioxide Exchange
  • Reduced Energy Use
  • Air Pollution Reduction
  • Storm Water Management
  • Water Quality Improvements

The People: The challenges that face our urban forest and its human inhabitants are vast and complex. The constraints of the forest include: limited space, soil quality, air quality, and the availability of adequate water and nutrients. These constraints significantly hinder healthy tree growth and therefore comprise the quality of life of the humans that live in urban areas.

There are many positive effects of a healthy urban forest on people, not the least of which are the psycho-social benefits. It is widely known that human interaction with nature:

  • Helps to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
  • Improves Medical Recovery and Convalescence
  • Contributes to Greater Job Satisfaction and Productivity
  • Promotes Healthy Social Interactions
  • Enhances Overall Quality of Life

Urban Forestry

The Human Dimensions of Urban Forestry
The continued health of the urban forest is largely dependent upon the contributions of urban foresters, elected officials and policy-makers, urban designers and planners, and citizen volunteers- including residential homeowners. Obviously, the people listed above are also beneficiaries of a healthy urban forest. Perhaps this is why the movement to promote and preserve our urban forest resources has gained so much momentum in recent years.

  • Urban Foresters: An exciting trend in recent years is the presence of urban foresters on the staff of city governments and local agencies. These trained professionals offer critical technical knowledge of plants and their benefit to the inhabitants of urban landscapes. Even smaller municipalities are realizing the advantages of having a qualified forester to advise them on policy and procedures. Urban foresters provide important advice to local elected officials and policy-makers so that they can make informed decisions.
  • Elected Officials and Policy-Makers: The responsibility to turn the latest technical information and the tide of public opinion into effective policy and working regulations is largely in the hands of this group. An increased awareness of the importance of a healthy forest in all types of human interactions in the urban environment needs to be supported and advanced by these trusted public servants, both in policy and action-based regulations.
  • Urban Planners: Most urban planners are well versed in the importance of a healthy urban forest on the human condition. In the modern world today, planners promote the establishment and/or conservation of public and private open space, greenbelts and conservation areas, both in public community master plans and through the review of private development proposals. These trained professionals utilize the technical knowledge provided by urban foresters, sociologists, landscape architects, biologists, soil scientists, engineers and other experts to provide a framework for sustainable growth and development.
  • Citizens: An abundance of citizen volunteers provides a sizable workforce for planting and maintaining trees and other plants in cities and towns around the world. Without these volunteers, the cost of healthy urban forests would often be prohibitive, especially for smaller municipalities. Residential homeowners are responsible for a large portion of the urban forest and every consideration should be offered to these “volunteer foresters”, including but not limited to advantages of availability and affordability of quality plants and planting supplies at local nurseries, and favorable landscaping regulations in local governments and homeowners associations. Through the continued diligence of the volunteers who plant, maintain and support the cause of trees and other plants will further promote the health of the urban forest and insure the aesthetic and functional qualities of this important ecosystem for future generations.
  • Green Industry: Last but by no means least, socially and environmentally responsible companies that produce innovative products to advance the quality and efficiency of the urban infrastructure are critical the future health of our city forests. Companies such as Citygreen® produce thoughtfully designed and manufactured landscape systems, above and below ground, that provide effective solutions to the complex demands of the urban environment.

Join us for the next article in this series The Urban Forest and Transportation.