Novel Study from UMass Amherst Researchers Examines Urban Tree Planting Initiatives Across the United States

Lack of institutionalization raises questions about long-term viability
Theodore Eisenman
Theodore Eisenman

AMHERST, Mass. – A first-of-its-kind nationwide survey of urban tree planting initiatives (TPIs) across municipal scales finds potential gaps in stewardship investments and institutionalization that raise questions about the programs’ long-term viability. In a study recently published online by the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, researchers led by Theodore Eisenman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst examined the traits that are typical of urban TPIs in the United States.

The new article, which follows an exponential bloom of interest in TPIs over the past decade, presents findings from a survey of 41 TPIs, reporting on six themes: background, dates and goals, public awareness, funding and governance, planting and stewardship. The survey’s respondents identified over 115 traits that distinguish TPIs from typical urban tree planting activity, suggesting that TPIs are a discrete form of urban forestry and urban greening.

“Over two-thirds of TPIs have funding separate from traditional urban forestry, and nearly half of TPIs funds are sourced outside of municipal budgets,” report Eisenman and his colleagues. “This suggests that TPIs are successful at raising money to enhance urban tree planting, but lack of institutionalization and traditional infrastructure financing raises questions about long-term viability.”

Eisenman, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UMass Amherst, was joined in the study by former student Tamsin Flanders and Richard Harper, extension associate professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst, as well as Richard Hauer at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Katherine Lieberknecht of the University of Texas at Austin.

They found that TPIs are good at mobilizing political and financial resources for program launch, tree purchasing and planting, but their findings suggest underinvestment in stewardship activities such as watering and long-term maintenance, and a need for greater investment in the social infrastructure that undergirds green infrastructure.

“A range of civil society actors are engaged in public awareness and project launch, but only three stakeholder groups (forestry/parks departments and private citizens) and two stakeholders (forestry and parks departments) are very or moderately engaged in stewardship activities such as watering and technical tree maintenance, respectively,” they write. “These distinctions are also reflected in the allocation of funds: some two-thirds of TPI financing is dedicated to upfront activities such tree purchasing (49%) and planting (18%), while stewardship activities such as watering and maintenance only account for 5% and 7%, respectively.”

In addition to providing a baseline of data for TPIs at this moment in time, the authors lay out an agenda for further research and practice. This includes more community participation in the up-front goal setting process of TPIs, increased research to determine if TPIs are meeting their intended goals and greater scholarly attention to mid- and small-sized municipalities, which are where most people live.

The complete article, “Traits of a bloom: a nationwide survey of U.S. urban tree planting initiatives (TPIs),” is available for free online via Eisenman’s Scholarworks page.