Engaging with stakeholders for the future of our urban treescapes

The importance of urban trees and greenspaces has been brought to the fore in the last couple of years. During the 2019 election, mass tree planting was promised by all parties, partly in response to the “climate emergencies” declared earlier in the year. Tree planting is a priority for many local authorities such as London, West Midlands and Greater Manchester.  More recently, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has seen a return of people to parks, and an increase in public engagement with nature, but has also shown that access to greenspace is not equal.

Despite the widely publicised benefits of greenspace for mental and physical well-being, managing urban trees and greenspace is complex. Trees and the urban natural environment require money and management, at a time when budgets are strained, and investment in greenspace provides no obvious or immediate financial return. Moreover, planting trees in hard landscapes requires multi-organisation collaboration to ensure utilities remain undamaged, and that trees can prosper in urban landscapes. Most pressingly, new urban trees now require an upfront “commuted sum” that covers the lifelong maintenance of the tree before planting can take place, which can often make schemes non-viable. Trees and green infrastructure are often the final considerations on developments and sometimes can be “value-engineered” out, especially in areas of low land value.

Trees and Design Action Group

It is within this political, multi and interdisciplinary context that the Trees and Design Action Group (TDAG) speaks for the trees and other urban green assets. TDAG brings together almost 1,000 individuals, professionals and organisations from wide ranging disciplines in both the public and private sectors to increase awareness of the role of trees and other green infrastructure in the built environment. TDAG and its members provide three main functions:

  1. TDAG brings together the necessary expertise to respond to white papers and policy consultations related to trees, planning and the natural environment, like the current England Tree Strategy and the planning white paper.
  2. Through regular seminars, TDAG provides a forum for knowledge exchange to discuss recent research and innovative best practice. NERC-funded research has featured strongly in TDAG events over the years, including: From Bicester and Beyond, Mainstreaming Green Infrastructure, Natural Capital Planning Tool, Green Infrastructure for Roadside Air Quality, and Building with Nature
  3. TDAG collaborates with academics and professional practice to develop evidence-based resources for decision makers, such as Species Selection for Green Infrastructure: A Guide for Specifiers, and the award winning Trees in Hard Landscapes: A Guide for Delivery .

“Dissemination of research into practice, collaboration between all parties and the recognition of trees as infrastructure assets along with other elements of infrastructure are critical if we are going to plant and retain the urban treescapes that we want and need in our climate challenged world.”  Sue James

First Steps in Urban Air Quality

First Steps in Urban Air Quality, is a successful example of stakeholder engagement supported by TDAG and funded by a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship awarded to Emma Ferranti. Green infrastructure is often touted as the solution to urban air pollution, or of little benefit for air quality, and everything in between. To provide clarity for practitioners, TDAG created a briefing document, First Steps in Urban Air Quality, summarising the scientific evidence on what green infrastructure can and cannot do for air quality, with practical guidance for urban decision-makers. The academic and non-academic delivery team included landscape architects, urban designers, engineers, and atmospheric scientist to ensure the document was scientifically robust, but also addressed the key concerns and uncertainties within professional practice.

Two years later, First Steps in Urban Air Quality is recommended by air quality experts, cited within government reports, and is included in CPD training for planners, public health consultants and more. This success is down to the regular and sustained stakeholder engagement during its conception, creation and dissemination.

“Working as a knowledge exchange fellow involves many, many, emails and conversations, and I often feel like a conduit through which information flows. A colleague pointed out I am far more akin to a treatment works, distilling the important information and passing it on to where it needs to go”.  Emma Ferranti

Moving forward, TDAG have developed a new NERC-funded document, First Steps in Valuing Trees and Green Infrastructure, that provides accessible information and advice on the range of economic valuation approaches for trees and green infrastructure, following a collaborative workshop at the University of Birmingham in 2018.  To find out more visit the TDAG webpage, or their list of guides and resources.


Biographies

Dr Emma Ferranti is a senior researcher and EPSRC Living With Environmental Change Fellowship and part of the urban forestry team at the Birmingham Institute for Forest Research (BIFoR) at the University of Birmingham. She previously held a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship. Since 2016, she has facilitated the TDAG seminar series and research links.

Sue James is a chartered Architect focusing on sustainability across the built and natural environment and  supporting the dissemination of research and knowledge at all levels of decision making, practice and delivery. She is Convenor of TDAG; knowledge programme adviser to Futurebuild and a member of the Edge, a multi-disciplinary built and natural environment think tank.

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