Building the Best Technology for the Longterm Monitoring of Urban Trees

A tree-lined street in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood.

A tree-lined street in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood.

Trees in urban settings play a vital role in our communities. Whether newly planted or decades old, urban trees provide crucial environmental, economic, community, and aesthetic benefits. A healthy urban forest can assist with stormwater mitigation efforts, shade buildings to save energy, beautify neighborhoods, increase property values, positively impact human health, and encourage community members to spend time outdoors.

A new report prepared by Azavea for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the USDA Forest Service Philadelphia Field Station explores how technology can be used to support the long-term systematic monitoring of urban trees; assist with tree planting and maintenance data processes; and enable data to be organized and shared between researchers and practitioners. Growing a vibrant urban forest requires maintenance, stewardship, and the regular planting of new trees.

Planting campaigns by governmental, non-profit, and community groups have resulted in millions of young trees added to cities throughout the U.S. in recent years. While many of these new trees are catalogued and counted as part of the planting initiative, less data is available about urban trees as they grow and die.

Information about stewardship activities such as pruning, watering, and planting site improvements is also seldom tracked consistently after trees are planted, despite research demonstrating that such activities may directly impact the health and growth of the tree. Long-term monitoring data related to urban tree health, growth and mortality rates, and longevity is useful to urban forestry professionals, scientists, and local community groups for four key purposes:

  • Gathering tree growth, mortality, and health data for planting programs as a means to evaluate performance, inform program management, and adapt practices over time
  • Coordinating community stewardship activities to encourage tree health and survival
  • Understanding how urban forests change through time in terms of population dynamics, including growth, mortality, and species diversity
  • Generating empirical data for use in accurately projecting urban tree populations and the related future estimated ecosystem services in order to demonstrate the value of planting campaigns toward environmental targets and goals

As part of long-term monitoring, it is essential to track longitudinal data about the same individual trees and planting sites. However, that process can be time-intensive, require extensive staffing resources, and result in large amounts of data that may be difficult to organize and quickly access or search. To increase the amount of available empirical data, it’s crucial to explore how to use technology to accurately gather tree data over time using field crews with varying levels of experience and then manage that data in a way that enables sharing information between groups. Through interviews with researchers and forestry practitioners, the authors built a list of the system requirements for an ideal software monitoring system, and evaluated 11 of the existing software platforms including OpenTreeMap.

The OpenTreeMap iOS and Android applications are designed to allow for easy data collection and query in the field.

The OpenTreeMap iOS and Android applications are designed to allow for easy data collection and query in the field.

While developing software that meets data collection and management needs is a critical first step, caring for urban trees is a collaborative task. As non-profit groups, municipal foresters, researchers, student interns, citizen scientists, and others work together to grow and maintain our urban forests, technology can be a valuable tool to assist in gathering data, coordinating management and planting activities, and demonstrating the economic and ecological value of trees. The report advocates for continued innovation in urban forestry data monitoring and technology development to support collaboration among between the many individuals in involved in tracking tree health, growth, and longevity.

Improving the process of long-term tree monitoring is essential for creating high-quality data that can inform adaptive management decisions, guide future planting initiatives, and assist with research on understanding how urban forests change through time. By providing opportunities to share that data more widely, organizations can learn from other programs and work together to build stronger urban forests. We’re excited to be part of the ongoing conversation on how software can assist with long-term tree monitoring, and welcome your feedback and experiences using the tools available.

Parts of this post were republished with permission from the report, Data Management for Urban Tree Monitoring – Software Requirements.

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