Adaptation and Vulnerability in the Urban Forest

Traditionally, risk and vulnerability were seen and are still seen as being borne about of hazards originating in severe weather, infrastructure failures or inhibitions and social disorder. However the impacts to natural features have not been seriously investigated, particularly in urban settings. Forests and green spaces are seen as resilient and able to bounce back. Yet, under multiple pressures this is no longer true. Urban green spaces now face destruction and demise if not properly managed or monitored. Are we preparing ourselves and learning from current urban forest epidemics such as human disturbance extreme weather and natural insect infestations? It may be necessary to design and understand other measures to include urban trees and also to consider under whose jurisdiction does responsibility to mitigate and adapt fall under. Are citizens and practitioners properly communicating the vulnerabilities and are they aware of the threats to urban forests? Topics range from health and climate change impacts to understanding measures for protection.

Moderator: Tim Leduc, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University

Keynote speaker: Dr. Sandy Smith, Professor, Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, Canada - “Urban Forest Resiliency: Ecological Science, our Buffer Against Collapse”

Urban forests are facing increasing threats due to multiple pressures, both local and global, making them increasingly vulnerable and at risk of collapse.  Ecological science is the key to building and retaining effective management strategies that will reduce the risk of such pressures.  From an ecologist’s perspective, increased biological diversity is the necessary prerequisite for increased adaptability and reduced vulnerability.  It is referred to as ecosystem resilience, and urban forests are a key driver underlying the capacity for resilience in the city.  When we homogenize our natural world and reduce biodiversity, as the urban condition often does, then we reduce resilience. This is true from both an ecological science perspective and a public engagement perspective.  Here, I draw on two case studies from Toronto, Canada’s largest urbanized area, to illustrate the potential, and sometimes failure, in using evidence-based science to build urban forest resiliency as a buffer against collapse. The first deals with intensified development along one of the city’s major transportation routes, adjacent to a provincially recognized natural heritage municipal park.  The proposed 80% reduction in tree canopy is in direct conflict with the city’s own vision to double its tree canopy. Without evidenced-based ecological science in support of such policies, it is very difficult to resolve these types of competing interests. The second case draws upon the recent successful management of a global invasive wood-boring species, Asian longhorned beetle, that arrived in Toronto during 2003 and threatened to devastate the city’s urban forest.  Two science and operations panels emerged that allowed these key areas to work effectively in addressing this huge challenge.  The successful outcome achieved in this case built upon the best ecological science to inform the necessary decision-making to ensure urban forest resiliency. 

Dr. Sandy M Smith is a Professor in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto where she was Dean (2010-2012) and is cross-appointed to the School for the Environment and Dept. Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Her research addresses the ecology and biological management of invasive forest insects to better understand invasion processes in forest systems.  A recent major focus is on community patterns of natural enemies and ecosystem resilience to exotic species in the urban forest. Prof. Smith has conducted research and teaching at UoT since 1988 after studies at the University of Guelph (BScAgr, MSc), the University of Toronto (PhD), a NSERC Visiting Research Scientist appointment with the Canadian Forest Service, and two sabbaticals at the European Biocontrol Laboratories in France and Switzerland.  She has supervised over 50 graduate theses, published widely, made numerous national and international presentations, and served as a Director for both the NSERC Biocontrol Network and the International Organization of Biological Control.  As well, Prof. Smith has served on NSERC’s Strategic Grant and Major Facilities Access Grant panels, and as Associate Editor of NRC’s Canadian Journal of Forest Research, being elected Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and President of both the Entomological Societies of Canada and Ontario.

Andy Kenney, Senior Lecturer Emeritus, Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto and Urban Forestry Practitioner - “Neighbourwoods: Engaging communities in urban forest stewardship”

An extensive suite of environmental, social and economic benefits derived from urban forests tend to accrue to the community as a whole and not just to the owner of the individual trees. Municipal governments are often thought to be the entities responsible for “urban forest management” but they seldom have the jurisdiction or the resources to give much consideration to the 80% to 90% of the trees found on private property. Fortunately, most municipalities are made up of neighbourhoods, or communities within a community, that tend to have relatively homogenous demographics and structure of the built environment. Neighbourwoods was developed to empower neighbourhood groups to take on the stewardship of the urban forest in their particular part of the community. The process has not only informed volunteers and community members about the status and needs of their urban forests but has also served to build community relationships around their trees and greenspace.

Andy Kenney has recently retired as a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto where he taught courses in urban and community forestry, agroforestry, and related issues. In addition to teaching, Andy has investigated the relationship between urban design and the extent of urban forest canopies. His work has focused on strategic planning in urban forestry and, in particular, community based urban forest stewardship. In collaboration with Dr. Danijela Puric-Mladenovic, Andy has developed Neighbourwoods, a planning and urban forest inventory protocol designed to aid community groups in the conservation and enhancement of the urban forest in their neighourhood. Andy has also been active in the development of the Canadian Urban Forest Strategy and the Canadian Urban Forest Network.

Darren Patrick, PhD student, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University - “Thinking the urban with Ailanthus Altissima: Queer notes on the ecological ethics and politics of arboreal entanglement”

How would a tree build the city? This paper is a speculative attempt to answer this question by focusing on ailanthus altissima, that is, the ‘tree of heaven’ or, in the literal translation of its Mandarin name, the ‘malodorous tree’. British nature writer Richard Mabey has apocalyptically described how this species, which thrives in urban areas, would easily overwhelm a city with even a minimal decline in maintenance. Even with standard maintenance, the tree is constantly proliferating in the urban. Not only was it the unloved and overabundant species figured in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but the ‘tree of heaven’ was also among the invasive exotic ‘colonizers’ of New York City’s High Line, that is, before it was appropriated by a neoliberal redevelopment plan, scrubbed clean, and replanted with an intensely managed selection of mostly ‘native’ plants. The ailanthus altissima was not welcomed back by the High Line’s new managers. Read through notions of assemblage, (de/re)territorialization, and a politics of cultivation, ailanthus altissima, along with the other flora and fauna (not to mention the queer cruisers among them) transformed the High Line from industrial conveyance into a vegetal corridor overflowing with creative desire. Acting in concert, the High Line’s ‘flora, fauna, and faggots’ made the ‘unthinkable’ possible; rather than being torn down to make way for development, the structure was actually redesigned as itself in an effort to stimulate even greater amounts of development. What might a more vegetally inclined approach reveal about the complex politics of displacement? To address this question, I read gentrification in the terms of ruderal urban ecology and ask what the entangled natural and cultural history of the ‘tree of heaven’ suggests about aspirationally depoliticized gentrification and, finally, for the possibility for a vegetally rooted politics of resistance.

Darren Patrick is a PhD Student in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. His work explores the intersection of queer theory, urban (political) ecologies, and posthumanism. He has written and presented on the High Line and the Hudson River Park, both in New York City at conferences and invited lectures in Berlin, New York, and Toronto. His studies at York are generously supported by the Trillium Scholarship. He is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, where he first encountered postindustrial natures.

Les Luxemburger, Creative Director & Owner, ART on the Go; Visual artist and art educator, youth facilitator - “Ecoart exploration for Urban Sustainability”

The purpose of this presentation is to highlight ways art can be used to reveal Nature’s presence and relevance in our cities, and the ways Nature is being impacted by the modern growth paradigm. My artworks reconnect the urban dweller with Nature, providing a visual account of diverse issues that impact their communities. The artist, viewer and Artwork is transformed becomes a vehicle to explore and communicate issues and potential solutions to environmental crisis. It is through this journey of creatively critiquing and critically reflecting upon these issues, can creative products/processes emerge, be tested, improved and evaluated. My works seek to answer these pertinent questions: What is the role of the Artist in a Post‐climate change world?; How can artists play a specific role in environmental conservation and sustainability?; What possibilities exist to use art and community art practice to communicate environmental and social messages that benefit communities?

I am an art educator and instructor, and teach out of my studio located in Newmarket, ON. As the owner and Creative Director of ART on the Go, an art education and creative consulting business, I specialize in facilitating eco‐art workshops at schools, festivals, and for environmental and non‐profit organizations, as well as businesses that seek ways to use art to explore environmental and social issues and arrive at potential solutions that are both innovative and deeply meaningful and relevant to them. I am also the Curatorial Director with the Toronto Urban Photography Festival. After completing a Bachelor and Masters degree in Environmental Studies from York University, I worked as a visual art instructor, environmental policy and conservation specialist, and youth facilitator; which led me to create environmentally themed artwork from 2004 – 2008 – this work was shown as part of York University’s Eco‐Art & Media Festival. My strong arts foundation from McMaster University, Sheridan College and Max the Mutt Animation, informed my eco‐art, which I use to help people understand and explore the ecological crisis and potential solutions. I use visual art as an instrument to inform students, residents, artists, organizations, and businesses about environmental conservation and sustainability. For more information:

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