The Urban Forest
Patterns of urban development have given rise to several environmental and public health concerns, including air and water pollution, respiratory illness, and urban-heat induced human mortality. Many municipalities have developed intensive urban forestry campaigns, many of which guide the growth and management of the urban canopy infrastructure. Understanding the linkages between urban canopy and public health will better inform these local planning decisions to address public health concerns and environmental justice.
Poor urban air quality is an important public health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified particulate pollution and other byproducts of combustion as a major contributor to ill health In addition, impervious surfaces in urban areas trap and store heat, resulting in heat waves which can overwhelm a person's ability to thermoregulate, sometimes leading to death, especially among the poor, elderly, and those living alone. Because forests play a role in improving air quality and reducing thermal heating in urban environments, they may prove to be an effective intervention for reducing health care costs and the likelihood of fatalities.
A Better Urban Forest
While simply increasing the total amount of canopy within constrained urban environment may be a helpful, equally important is the need to find target approaches that leverage limited municipal resources to guide urban forestry campaigns, while maximizing the benefits to all urban residents. In fact, despite their wide-spread popularity, urban forestry campaigns are often completed with limited assessments of the relationship among physical constraints, affected populations, and the types of problems cities are trying to solve. Needed are systematic approaches for identifying locations within cities where urban canopy can improve public health conditions, particularly for those populations that consistently and disproportionately suffer from chronic environmentally-induces problems.
The Health Trees, Healthy People program at Portland State University aims to find canopy designs that most effectively improve the public's health. With generous support from the United States Forest Service (USFS) and several participating organizations, an interdisciplinary research team will collaborate through 2014 to quantify the health benefits of the urban forest and their role in addressing air pollution and urban heat across 13 cities of the United States.