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Urban trees are beneficial to society, UOW research shows

The benefits of trees in urban spaces are well known. They absorb pollution, provide shade, help stabilise the local climate and they look beautiful, too. But University of Wollongong researchers say they also provide a sense of connection between people and the environment.

I f you could share your thoughts with your favourite tree, what would you say? It is an intriguing question, but it is at the heart of a body of research underway at the University of Wollongong that uses technology to better understand the complex relationship between people and the plants that keep us alive.

The aim? To explore the physical, emotional, environmental, and social impact of trees in urban areas.

Dr Jennifer Atchison, Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, and Dr Hugh Forehead, Research Fellow at the SMART Infrastructure Facility, have joined forces to collect and analyse data that will give city planners vital insights into creating better, more sustainable green spaces for urban communities, while also slowing the effects of climate change. 

Our connection to the environment

Dr Atchison first began exploring the social impact of rapid environmental changes occurring in urban forest areas in 2017. She was part of a team of academics, led by the University of Melbourne’s Dr Catherine Phillips, who collaborated with Melbourne City Council’s Urban Forest Strategy team.

Two years earlier the Urban Forest Strategy developed a geographic information system which mapped more than 70,000 of the city’s trees in a bid to mitigate tree loss (Melbourne, like many major Australian cities, is expected to lose 44 per cent of its tree population over the next two decades to old age). Each of the city’s 77,000 trees were given an email address and the public was invited to write in with any concerns about maintenance and management in the hope that the lifespan of the trees could be prolonged.

“But what happened was something quite unexpected,” Dr Atchison says.  “People wrote love letters to the trees. They wrote personal and very detailed emails of their histories and relationships with the trees and humorous and engaging emails to trees. We’re talking thousands and thousands of emails. I think at latest count there were over 4000 emails, and they come from all over the world.”

An ode to the trees

One woman visited a particular tree with her grandmother as a small child. She now takes her own daughter to the same tree for picnics and said in her email:  “I hope you were happy a few weeks ago when we had a picnic under you, we hugged you and collected some of your leaves.”

Another wrote: “I heard that you’re the most popular and beautiful tree in Melbourne based on the number of people who email you. Does that ever make you feel self-conscious … how has your life changed since you became internationally famous? Has a Hollywood producer approached you to star in your own reality TV show? Perhaps you could call it Branching Out or Full Tree House.

Or this: “It’s an interesting experience to email a tree, I’m now wondering what response I’ll get back.”

For the record staff from the Urban Forestry Strategy Team also wrote replies.

Dr Jennifer Atchison and Dr Hugh Forehead from the University of Wollongong.

Dr Jennifer Atchison and Dr Hugh Forehead from the University of Wollongong.

It was a project that piqued the interest of the public but affirmed to Dr Atchison the emotional threads that bind people to nature. Here was a collection of robust, scientific data, mapping the green zones in one of Australia’s biggest urban cities, while also detailing the unique and complicated relationship that city dwellers have with the environment in which they live.

The project fitted perfectly with Dr Atchison’s work as a human geographer, which she first began while writing her PhD at UOW in 1996. Dr Atchison and Dr Phillips approached the City of Melbourne and, as part of a collaboration, offered to do some research “to help them understand this dataset”.

“As qualitative researchers we’re interested in looking at those emails as a way in which people form relationships with trees, trying to understand why people care for trees and what that means for the future of urban forests,” Dr Atchison says.

“Many of the stories that people wrote in their emails to trees are very personal, some of it very heartfelt and revealing, there were many stories of vulnerability. I think that it is fair to say we were surprised by the depth of emotion people shared about trees. We wanted to understand why people care for and value trees.”

The emotional connection to trees is something Dr Atchison understands well. She grew up in the country and her father was a forester, then a senior officer with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Her mother was a teacher. She laughs when reflecting on how these factors more than likely led to her long-running interest in exploring “human relationships with nature and environmental change”.

“Urban areas are changing rapidly under climate change,” Dr Atchison says. “And we aren’t doing enough.”

How green space could transform Liverpool

It is this transformation in urban areas that Dr Atchison aims to address in her latest research collaboration with Dr Forehead – Smart Cities for Understanding Living in Liverpool (SCULL).

The project aims to help local government understand what aspects of Liverpool’s public spaces are working well for both residents and visitors. Funded by a Global Challenges grant, the project is led by Dr Forehead in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team including Dr Atchison. The academics, along with a team of six researchers from a range of disciplines, have started analysing data collected from sensors across Liverpool, installed for a federally funded Smart Cities and Suburbs project.

Vegetation cover, shading, noise, air quality, and temperature are all variables that determine the comfort level of residents living in urban areas. The team will examine each of these, using the smart technology they collect from anonymous CCTV traffic counters, air quality, noise and temperature monitors. They are also undertaking a survey, aimed at understanding people’s usage and experiences of urban green space in the CBD.

Dr Forehead and Dr Atchison hope the research will inform Liverpool City Council so urban planners are better able to accommodate increased development and population growth, particularly with Western Sydney Airport construction underway.

“Our aim is to make cities more liveable,” Dr Forehead says.  “Last year Liverpool had the worst air quality in the country, and it’s getting worse. The city is surrounded by major arterial roads and sits at the base of the Sydney Basin. We have consulted with the community and they are concerned.”

Add to this the fact there are a multitude of hard surfaces in Liverpool (temperature mapping has shown it can go beyond 40 degrees in summer), and the need for well thought out, green urban spaces is clear, Dr Atchison says.

“People die in heatwaves,” Dr Forehead says. “So shade is essential. But it is not as straightforward as just planting a tree. You can’t just pick something that looks nice off a list. You need to know what it’s going to do, how it will improve the environment and the costs associated with its ongoing maintenance. Trees are seen as an affordable way of ameliorating climate change but they do have costs associated with them.”

Making cities more liveable

Dr Atchison says increasingly trees are being referred to as “green infrastructure” and are as critical to the liveability of urban areas as the infrastructure that provides water, gas and electricity.

But in the same way that pipes require maintenance so do trees. Dr Atchison, who is also conducting a similar research project in Darwin, points to the recent devastation wreaked by Cyclone Marcus. Thousands of trees were felled during the disaster and part of the damage was attributed to poor tree choices and a lack of tree maintenance.

“Maintenance is critical because trees as an infrastructure give us services, but we need to plan for how to manage those trees,” she says.

The researchers hope the results of the SCULL project will help urban planners design and build the most cost effective, user friendly and environmentally sound public spaces possible.

“The science tells us that we need more trees in urban areas but if we are going to have more trees we have to be aware that there are risks and there are costs,” Dr Atchison says. “For example on really windy days there is debris and potential damage, so we need to understand the implications.”

“All trees release volatile chemicals into the air that can combine with traffic pollution and produce ozone,” Dr Forehead adds. “Some trees can lift pavements, or get into pipes. There are pluses and minuses for all urban planners to consider and this research will help them to decide.”

Dr Atchison says: “We are trying to pull all these different threads of data together to understand what makes the city liveable and what would improve liveability.”

To do this the researchers need community input and are calling on the citizens of Liverpool to tell them about their experiences with the city’s green spaces. The information provided by users will be integral to understanding how to improve “liveability” in urban areas.

“We like to think our research is going to be useful so the best way we can do that is by working with the people who are going to be using it,” Dr Forehead says.

The academics hope to scale up the project to include other cities such as Wollongong.

Contact jennya@uow.edu.au to share your experience of Liverpool’s green spaces.

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