Rising challenge of managing urban forests prompts new UBC degree

September 28, 2015

By: Vancouver Sun

To University of B.C. forestry professor Stephen Sheppard, the freak windstorm that hit Metro Vancouver in August, downing thousands of trees and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people, is a stark reminder of the increasing challenges facing managers of urban green spaces.

With that in mind, UBC’s faculty of forestry is launching a new undergraduate degree in urban forestry aimed at teaching skills in maintaining healthy and resilient city forests capable of adapting to climate change.

It will be a first for Western Canada, Sheppard said, but will fit into an international field that is growing in places such as Asia and Scandinavia.

“The problems get more acute because you get more people moving to cities,” Sheppard said, and people still have high expectations for access to nature and recreation.

“You need a healthy forest for that. So the pressure on urban forests is getting a lot more.”

Severe weather events driven by climate change, droughts that increase the risk of forest fires where subdivisions encroach on wilderness, and the expectations of people all make urban forestry more challenging.

So the idea for the new UBC degree program is to turn out foresters capable of managing trees in an urban context, compared with rural settings where the job is more typically managing for environmental conservation and timber values.

The program will receive its official launch at an event on campus today, but Sheppard said the faculty admitted students to the first course two weeks ago.

The provincial Ministry of Advanced Education approved the program in June, but after about only six weeks of promoting it, Sheppard said they had signed up 60 students for its first introductory Urban Forestry 100 course.

“There’s been a lot of latent interest by students from various backgrounds,” Sheppard said.

UBC is also expecting international participation in the program, he added. The faculty already has joint-degree programs with schools in places such as China, where there is high interest in urban forestry issues.

The expectation is that the program’s first class will take in 25-30 students, and grow to about 30-40 new students per year.

They will take courses in areas that are more traditionally oriented to forestry such as forest ecology (with an emphasis on urban environments), tree health and silviculture, Sheppard said.

But the program will also have a heavy emphasis on urban planning and design, as well as social sciences related to recreation and community health and well-being.

And in a data-driven society, Sheppard said students will get a grounding in “smart tools” related to mapping and geomatics.

Previously, Sheppard’s professorship was a joint appointment with the school of architecture and landscape architecture, but he has been brought into the forestry faculty full time to be the program’s director.

“We’ve been teaching parts of (the program), but not the mix (of skills),” Sheppard said. “I think that’s where the needs are going to be in the future.”

Municipalities will likely take up some of the UBC urban forestry graduates, said Owen Croy, manager of parks for the City of Surrey.

Croy has a staff of about 24 to look after Surrey’s 1,000 hectares of urban forests. He said they arrive with specific skills, such as arboriculture or ecology, but have to learn the broad range of urban forestry on the job, so he is eagerly watching UBC’s efforts.

“People have to cobble together a program in different disciplines to get what they would get out of (the UBC urban forestry degree),” Croy said.

He added that urban forestry issues, such as ecosystem protection and recreation, are driving a lot of Surrey’s planning decisions, so he needs professionals who can incorporate all of those issues.

“Trees are easy to manage,” Croy said. “The interaction between people and trees are much more dynamic and challenging.”

By: Vancouver Sun

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