Learning from Limbwalkers: Arborists’ stories in Southern Ontario’s urban forests

by Adrina Bardekjian



Urban forestry (UF) contains dominant stories of adaptive management, ecosystem services, valuation, green infrastructure, planting mandates, and citizen engagement. Inspired by political ecology, this study examines the marginal and under-represented stories related to language, labour processes, human and non-human agency, and educational norms in UF in Southern Ontario, Canada. With a focus on arboricultural practice, I explore how communicating underrepresented narratives informs a more socially inclusive urban forest integration. Methodology uses theoretical reflection, primary and secondary research, and semi-structured interviews, participant observation and site-visits with 50 field arborists and urban foresters. Using phenomenology, political ecology, ethnography and discourse analysis, I examine arborists’: representation in language; working activities and relationships with co-workers; negotiations in the urban forest, physically and emotionally as a place of work; and, feelings about available education versus existing UF and arboriculture programs. Results reveal that: i) language and metaphors surrounding arborists can perpetuate negative perceptions; ii) political climates surrounding UF operations favours male, non-field workers; iii) arborists’ have a physical and emotional relationship with the urban forest; and, iv) lack of standardized comprehensive and inclusive UF education creates knowledge gaps leading to unsafe environments for trees and people. Findings suggest that re-imagining UF practice and communication influences its praxis towards more sustainable, ethical and transdisciplinary directions by: i) raising urban tree worker profiles through accurate terminology in marketing and communications; ii) aligning health and safety policies with field worker perspectives; iii) developing better UF decision-making systems and management practices by understanding arborist perspectives on non-human agency; and, iv) providing a solid baseline of formal education and incorporating critical social theory to better reflect the transdisciplinary aspects of the field. Inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) notions of how professional fields need paradigm shifts to progress beyond regular or normal avenues, I argue that seeing UF through narratives of lived experience by field workers can better integrate social and ecological considerations in urban forest research, management and education. My research moves beyond existing models of strategic planning, with lessons from the social sciences, by way of critical reflection and participatory learning, offering a new conceptual framework for UF praxis.


Limbwalkers© is a short independent film that sheds insight into the social complexities of working arboriculture. The story explores the connections that field arborists have with the important work they perform, their close relationships with trees, and their voice in broader urban forestry discourses. This film is a tribute to the men and women who nurture our urban trees and maintain our urban forests. Click here for preview.

Acknowledgements (download .pdf)

Photo by Julian Ambrosii