The third of the greatly anticipated Trees, People and the Built Environment conferences, hosted by the Institute of Chartered Foresters and held at Birmingham University, brought together a diverse mix of expertise from Europe, the US and Canada. This event showcased the cutting edge research from across the disciplines of arboriculture, urban forestry, civil engineering, landscape architecture, urban design and planning, medicine and public health and many more.

Photograph: Rob Hawkins / Institute of Chartered Foresters

The first day was focused on the challenge of integrating trees and SuDs designs into highways schemes in and around underground utilities. Dr Ana Macias from Arborcity demonstrated visualisation tools as a means of enabling local authorities and designers to simulate alternative sites for planting street trees in heavily trafficked areas. In the session entitled ‘Designing the Underworld’, panellists brought to the fore the importance of ‘master planning the underground’, understanding and mapping our ‘underworld’ with the same long-view that we have become accustomed to in our approach to urban planning and the design of our above ground environment. There is some incredibly exciting work being undertaken by Dr Nicole Metje from the University of Birmingham, her multidisciplinary team and ourselves. Eminent arboriculturalist Sharon Hosegood will be delighted to contribute, and to test our below ground solutions in the new trial test pit being developed in Birmingham.

The second and final day of the conference introduced a keynote speech by Dr Ann Marie Connolly, the Deputy Director of Health Equity and Mental Health at Public Health England, and was specifically aimed at tackling the issues related to the role of urban trees in improving the health of citizens of our urbanised nations. We know that air quality and obesity will result in some of the most challenging and financially burdensome tasks befalling our National Health service. The incorporation of the natural world into our built environment holds the key to unlocking the benefits of nature for our well-being and reducing the health inequalities which exist across the UK, Europe and North America. As Dr Ann Marie Connolly noted, mental health is also directly connected to our experience of nature. This was also developed in the argument present by Dr Matilda Van Der Bosch from the University of British Columbia, who shared a number of results from a series of experiments she and her colleagues had undertaken using virtual forest environments to measure the role of trees in reducing recovery time in subjects from stressful situations.

Photograph: Rob Hawkins / Institute of Chartered Foresters

Connecting natural capital accounting to information relating to air quality is another way that industry professionals can make a robust case for using street tree planting as a positive intervention to deliver public health outcomes. Papers by Professor Rob MacKenzie (University of Birmingham), Dr Laurence Jones from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology UK, presented their latest research findings connecting the design of our urban trees from the street to city scale with air quality targets.

The conference delegates heard about the comprehensive urban forest plans being delivered at a community level across Chicago from the team at the Moreton Arboretum. They have developed online templates and systems to make it easier for communities to measure and deliver results, to improve local canopy cover, and derive the long-term health benefits from cost-effective interventions. It is at this scale that as well as large scale urban master planning, communities can take ownership of their trees and fully understand the multifunctional role of green infrastructure.

Photograph: Rob Hawkins / Institute of Chartered Foresters

What we must not neglect to remember, is that despite the numerous new tools and apps available to measure and map our urban forest and the plethora of underground services and utilities, there is essentially a simple and more fundamentally emotional argument that can be made for incorporating trees into the built environment. Our relationship with trees has historic roots, from the literature produced in the ancient frozen lands of Icelandic saga to the eighteenth century poetry of aristocratic noblemen and royals in England and Scotland. We are inspired by trees to create narrative, to engage and activate the artistic and creative. This was eloquently, and at points poignantly articulated, by Professor Fiona Stafford from Oxford University who spoke after the conference dinner. In conversation with Professor Stafford and with the Woodland Trust, we agreed that the combination of narrative to create a sense of place and community, and a way to make the solutions and results presented to industry experts accessible to the public, will help us to win the argument for increased canopy cover on a global scale.

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