UNT geographers exploring technology’s influence on urban forest management and planning

Tuesday, October 4, 2022 - 08:17

DENTON (UNT), Texas — It’s no secret that urban trees can have tremendous benefits for people, reducing exposure to poor air quality and bringing relief from excessive heat.

With cities across the U.S. increasingly turning to digital tools such as i-Tree to monitor, plan and manage their urban forests, University of North Texas Department of Geography and the Environment faculty members Alexandra Ponette-González and Matthew Fry will soon launch a five-year study –– backed by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant –– to examine how this technology influences urban forest sustainability and equity.

Ponette-González is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers from around the U.S. focused on looking at how these urban forest assessment and valuation tools ––and the people using them –– are impacting decisions made about our urban forests. The team includes Fry; John Van Stan, Cleveland State University; Yekang Ko and Jun Hak Lee, University of Oregon; Ashley Coles, Texas Christian University; and MiHyun Kim, Texas State University. Faculty also will recruit a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented communities at each institution to support the research.

Specifically, they’ll investigate how these technologies:

  • facilitate equitable access to tree-based ecosystem services
  • involve urban residents in decision-making processes surrounding urban forests
  • represent peoples’ values and preferences for urban trees
  • estimate air pollution removal

“Theoretically, digital tools like i-Tree are designed to improve how urban forests are planned and managed. However, there hasn’t been a lot of research on who is using these tools, how they are being used and what the outcomes are,” Ponette-González said.

There will be three focus cities for the project –– Denton, Texas; Cleveland, Ohio; and Eugene, Oregon. In these cities, researchers will take quarterly samples from 100 randomly selected trees scattered throughout each area to compare with i-Tree estimates of air pollution removal. A larger list of nearly 30 cities will be surveyed to understand their use of digital tools in the management of urban forests.

“Our goal with this work is not just to publish for the scientific community,” Ponette-González said. “We will share reports with the cities, host webinars with professionals in urban forest management and create interactive displays and exhibitions for the general public that invite feedback. Ultimately, we hope our results can inform policymaking in the future so that cities can ensure their urban forest planning and management is inclusive and environmentally just.”

Ponette-González also is co-principal investigator on another recently funded NSF grant led by Van Stan. For this project, researchers will measure non-living particulates (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and microplastics) in rainwater that pass through the forest canopy in throughfall (water that drips through gaps and from leaves or bark) and stemflow (water that runs down stems) in 12 different forests across the U.S. Ponette-González will focus on black carbon or airborne soot, a component of fine particulate matter that has been the focus of her other ongoing research looking at the role trees play in removing black carbon from the urban atmosphere. This latest research project is an extension of a paper Ponette-González co-authored last year in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, outlining the need for more research in this area.

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Devynn D. Case