Practicing forestry, in urban areas

Photo courtesy of the Urban Resources InitiativeColleen Murphy-Dunning (right), the founding director of the Urban Resources Initiative, helping to plant the group’s 10,000th tree, on May 13, in New Haven, Conn.

It’s a new take on forestry for an historic institution. Founded 1900, the Yale Forest School was one of the first graduate-level programs of this subject in the United States, and is the oldest such program in the country to survive to the present day. It survives — flourishes — because, like our forests, the School has adapted and evolved.

With an initial emphasis on the fostering of woodland as a source of forest products, it educated the first four chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service. By 1969, as The Yale Forestry School, it was graduating its first female foresters, and in 1972 it became the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In 2020, the transformation was completed when it became the Yale School of the Environment, though it still maintains a division that it has returned to calling The Forest School. Even the practice of growing trees has changed, however, for with its Urban Resources Initiative (founded in 1990), the School has encouraged its foresters to apply their skills to the city environment.

Focused on the New Haven cityscape, the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) grew out of social forestry, a movement within the forestry community to manage forests in such a way as to benefit of local inhabitants. So, for example, if the local community relies on wood as fuel for heating and cooking, social forestry would focus on producing that kind of resource. Planting for diversity on barren lands can enhance the biological richness of a region, bringing benefits to the human population as well as wildlife, while planting trees as a carbon sink can fight climate change with all of its negative impacts on communities.

Colleen Murphy-Dunning was teaching social forestry in Kenya in 1990 when Yale hired her to apply its principles to Yale’s home, New Haven. As the founding director of URI, she became intrigued with the recognition of the city as an ecosystem. Foresters have traditionally practiced their craft in rural and wilderness areas, but urban areas also rely on trees for cleansing and cooling the air, to support wildlife, and to provide benefits, practical as well as aesthetic, for the inhabitants.

URI was begun with the recognition that its programs could not be top-down, that it had to be a partnership at every level with New Haven residents. An advisory board was established to bring residents and community groups into the planning process. For instance, in selecting where to plant trees, still one of URI’s principal programs, the locations were selected by residents working with the Yale students and foresters. Simple beautification might be the motive of a resident for requesting a tree, or it might be a memorial for a loved one or a lasting celebration of some life event. Residents were involved in the planting – teenagers were hired to assist with the planting, and those who requested trees were asked to take responsibility for the post planting watering.

Vandalism and neglect are typically banes of urban tree planting programs, but the community involvement URI has cultivated has minimized that. Survival rates for the URI planted trees is 90 percent, so high that city authorities began contracting with URI to do its planting. This necessitated an expansion of the crews, and a program to hire adults with obstacles to employment such as a record of incarceration was begun, with the idea that the program could become an entry point for them into the work force.

Recently, Murphy-Dunning informed me, URI planted its ten thousandth tree. It has also addressed one on of the growing challenges facing many urban areas, the flash flooding promoted by the ever more violent storms caused by climate change. In partnership with the City of New Haven, and EMERGE Connecticut, Inc. (a community organization established to assist formerly incarcerated people), URI has worked to design and install over 70 bioswales that capture and infiltrate stormwater runoff. Collectively, these elements of green infrastructure are expected to absorb and filter more than 5.6 million gallons annually, helping not only to reduce flooding but also to reduce pollutants washed into local waterways, improving water quality in New Haven’s rivers and Long Island Sound.

For me, as a horticulturist, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Urban Resources Initiative is the diversity of the interns it draws from the University.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Christopher’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at

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