Urban Tree Cultures: Identities and Perspectives

The power of green spaces to form attachment and sense of identity is one of the most compelling arguments for natural resource conservation motivation in local people. The ability to advocate or feel compelled to conserve something that builds identity of self invokes stronger citizenship and increased awareness of the relationship between nature and governance. Aboriginal cultures have long been attached to nature and popular culture also emphasizes this narrative. It is useful for urban forest and green space studies to explore the development of these areas as urban centres continue to grow and intensify leaving less room for the nurturing of green identities. Research that demonstrates and brings attention to identity and perspectives, as well as, work on the citizenry in communities of Aboriginal culture and the changing dynamics of cities are welcome to submit a letter of intent.

Cate Sandilands, Professor, Canada Research Chair in Sustainability and Culture, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University

Catriona (Cate) Sandilands is Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, where she teaches at the intersections of environmental literatures, politics, and theory, with a particular interest in queer and feminist perspectives on multispecies inhabitions. She is currently completing a manuscript on the intellectual legacy of Canadian author Jane Rule, and beginning another on the queer politics of human/plant relations.

Keynote speaker: Dr. Owain Jones, Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire, UK - “Places of Trees: Affective Embodiment, Identity and Materiality”

This paper suggests that new affect based understandings of place and landscape can be of use in understanding of how individuals and communities engage with forest spaces in imaginative and in embodied (practical) terms, and also in how the complex composition of forest spaces (as cultural, ecological, political, economic, and  living entities) can be appreciated. These ideas are connected to questions of wellbeing and social benefit through the ways people construct their individual and collective identities in terms of sense of self and sense of place. These approaches to people/place/landscape focus upon a range of affective processes which are often ignored by, or simply inaccessible to, standard social science concepts and methods (e.g. visitor survey techniques). These new approaches treat places/landscapes as complex temporal-spatial-material processes into which social, cultural, and symbolic meaning entwine. Peoples’ engagement with (differing) places is articulated through a range of affective bodily practices such as walking, sitting, climbing, doing (voluntary work) sensing (touch, sight, sound, small), and a range of non-cognitive affective processes (feelings, emotions), which at not necessarily articulated or articulatable in thought and/or language. Thus these approaches can be seen as post-phenomenological as set out in Ingold’s dwelling approach and Thrift’s ‘ecologies of place approach’.


Dr. Owain Jones is a Reader in cultural geography, landscape, place and environment at the Countryside and Community Research Institute (UK). He researches and writes on matters of nature-society relations, focusing on a range of subjects which include non-human agency, temporality/rhythm, place and memory. He has conducted research for the UK Economic and Social Research Council and Arts and Humanities Research Council on treed landscapes, flooded landscapes and tidal and coastal landscapes. With Paul Cloke he published the book Tree Cultures in 2002 (Berg), and with Jo Garde-Hansen he has published Geography and Memory: Identify, Place and Belonging in 2012 (Palgrave).

Peter Simon, Urban Design and Planning Consultant, City of Toronto - “The Changing Nature of City Infrastructure”

Our understanding of city infrastructure has been that it is the physical systems such as roads, public transit, water supply, sewage, gas, electrical and telecommunications systems that service the buildings that form a city. This model of infrastructure as a series of linear systems serving individual buildings, like veins and arteries serving our organs, is proving to be increasingly limited and unsustainable. We are not able to stop the hemorrhaging of urban sprawl nor the clogging of our arteries. The clogging of arteries is not just an anthropomorphic reference to our traffic congested roads but a reference to the real fact that sitting for two to three hours a day in traffic has been shown to be a significant contributor to heart disease. Our understanding of the infrastructure needed to support a liveable city must be reconsidered. What is needed is an infrastructure of interconnected elements with the attributes that support the entire structure of development including our health and well being. Trees, the urban forest, are an important component of an infrastructure that supports a liveable city. Although many municipalities across North America have official plan objectives to achieve a 30 to 40 percent tree canopy, this is a difficult challenge in view of the ambiguous status trees have in the existing dynamics of the design, planning and construction process. For example: Trees cannot be considered formally as a capital asset by government accounting best practices even though they provide many physical functions that can be converted into cost reduction such as reducing storm water. The word 'tree' cannot be found in a municipal Residential Zoning By-law. The requirement for trees cannot be legislated in a zoning by-law because a tree is not a structure. Trees have been integral to the residential neighbourhoods we know and love or the ones we might imagine. They must continue to be in the future. The urban forest must grow and be an integral part of the future city. I will be discussing the challenges and some strategies for overcoming them in order to integrate trees with the processes of city building.

Peter Simon has been working in Urban Forestry for the City of Toronto for the last 10 years. The main focus of his work has been on improving the planting conditions for trees in hard surfaced urban areas. Peter is a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Architecture. His experience as an architect includes working on large commercial, institutional and residential projects. During his career as an architect Peter acted as a consultant for the City of Toronto at varying times for the Planning, Housing and Parks and Recreation Departments. Peter's interest is the integration of trees within the city infrastructure and the integration of the urban forest into the built environment. He recently was awarded an honorary membership to the Ontario Association of Landscape Architecture for his work in improving the urban streetscape. His passion is cities and the dynamic processes that are involved in shaping them.

James Steenberg, PhD student, Environmental Applied Science and Management, Ryerson University - “Redefining the Neighbourhood: Addressing Social and Biophysical Processes in Urban Forests to Foster Identity”

We address a critical though ambiguous question in the management of urban forests: At what scale (or more accurately at what spatial level) do people most identify with the trees around them? To rephrase this in terms that are relevant to sustainable urban forest management: At what spatial level will people become most engaged in the stewardship of their urban forest? The theoretical foundation for these questions and our research is that people identify with the trees to which they are the most exposed. Specifically, the urban forest surrounding their places of residence is what citizens are most passionate about, and most willing to become engaged with. We present a tool for engaging the citizenry that draws from the sense of identity or place that trees provide that is rooted in the concept of the neighbourhood. Traditional ecological research focuses strongly on the biophysical processes within ecosystems. However, urban ecosystems, inclusive of the urban forest, are tremendously influenced by social, political, and economic processes and variables. Conversely, in urban areas these socio-political and socio-economic factors have historically superseded the natural environment. To foster a sense of identity and stewardship for the urban forest that is both inclusive and sustainable, both the biophysical and social elements must be addressed. Thus, an urban forest neighbourhood must be founded on existing culture and history that characterizes individual neighbourhoods but must broaden its spatial and conceptual boundaries to include relevant biophysical components. We present a case study of an urban forest neighbourhood in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was completed as part of the development of the urban forest master plan. We also present the novel application of this framework for classifying urban forest neighbourhoods to a region in Toronto, Ontario.

James is currently a PhD student at Ryerson University studying urban forest ecology in Toronto. He worked as a research associate at Dalhousie University in Halifax on several projects relating to rural forests, urban forests, and climate change, including the development of Halifax's urban forest master plan. He began his research career in 2006, examining post-disturbance regeneration patterns in wilderness parks, and has been researching climate change and sustainable management in forests and urban forests since 2008. This included collaborating with the local water utility in Halifax during his graduate studies at Dalhousie to explore climate change and forested watersheds. In addition to his research career, James has worked in silviculture as a tree planter in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, and in forest conservation in Nova Scotia.

Ruthanne Henry, Artist, Propeller Centre for Visual Arts, Toronto - “Landscape Ironies: A Painted Narrative on the Changing Landscape of Southern Ontario”

The Southern Ontario landscapes are more often depicted artistically in the landscape painting tradition of the wilderness landscapes captured by Group of Seven than in post-modern landscapes which document the vulnerable landscape more typical of the contemporary rural landscape of the region. A visual narrative, Landscape Ironies, was shown as a solo exhibition at the Propeller Centre for Visual Arts in November - December 2010. This narrative was created to display some of the incongruities between our perception of the iconic Ontario landscape, and how the utility and resources associated with the landscape are being managed. It was the artist’s intent to prompt discussion and record impressions from viewers. The narrative starts with the images of a passenger’s view from a car moving through each of the landscapes chosen as part of the narrative, this viewpoint was chosen as consistent with how most of us, as urbanites now experience the rural landscape, road trip diaries #1-4. Next there are two paintings; forest fragment and suburban dream depicting forest fragmentation of a forested area on the Niagara Escarpment as a result of typical Ontario sub-urban land clearing practices. This moves on to a large painting showing lakefront impacts with an oversized recreational dwelling under construction on a small pine forested island in proximity to Georgian Bay, titled cabin escape…? The next series of three paintings are of a very un-commercial mixed agricultural and forested area, the Beaver Valley, for how much longer #1-3. The controversial wind turbine project in Melancthon township is the subject of the next series of five paintings, new vernacular #1-5. These paintings are contrasted with the next set of paintings of a community tree planting of an urban landfill site, healing the past neglect #1-3. The last painting in the series is of the urban forest as seen from a high-rise in north Toronto. Interspersed are some mixed media pieces illustrating the signage reflecting our rural landscape under siege, and the pressure for gravel extraction within Ontario’s Greenbelt, signs of a changing landscape, and a sculptural installation to accompany the healing the past neglect series including child sized gloves, mulch pails and a large landscape size pile of mulch coming out of the gallery wall. The impressions of visitors were recorded on a scroll asking the audience what was important to them about the region’s landscape upon leaving the show. As well an artist’s presentation was made and video recorded for a visiting school group of grade 4 and 5 students and their dialogue with the artist about their impressions of the show. The show was well received. It successfully prompted discussion among viewers about the balance of the utility and integrity of the landscape. This series serves as a good point to further investigate ways in which to engage audiences of all ages with the uniqueness and vulnerabilities of the Southern Ontario landscape.

I am trained as a landscape architect, and have led a rewarding career in ecological design and planning for the conservation of natural features. Now, as an emerging visual artist I am working with the themes of healing, growth and regeneration of ourselves and our landscape context. I work in a variety of media; paint, photography, as well as installation sculpture and performance work. Recent Toronto shows include a solo show Landscape Ironies at the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts, as well as Scapes, (also at Propeller), The Eco-Art Exhibition at Gallery 1313 and The Changing Landscape at the Papermill Gallery. In Clarksburg my work has been exhibited in the Loft Gallery. The spring issue of iAM, (a digital magazine featuring ideas, actions and perspectives on global change) features a painting from the Landscape Ironies series. I relate to the urban forest on a very personal level. I live adjacent to the forest looking into it, and follow the cycle of seasons. I take joy in observing the hawks nesting, owls sleeping and the subtle changes in the plant communities around where I live. I feel the forest is an extension of me as well as all of us living around it. According to scientists such as Harlow Shapley and David Suzuki we are the forest; including the fungi, plants and animals we share or exchange oxygen with. In my opinion, a degraded forest with little structure, compacted soils, lacking in species diversity reflects a wounded self. I want to be healthy and enjoy the refuge of forests teaming with diverse life and a variety of layered textures.

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