Fraser Rummens reports on this year’s International Urban Trees Research Conference, which focused on working together for a resilient urban future.

YOU couldn’t ignore the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the recent Trees, People and the Built Environment 4 (TPBE4) conference, which took place in early February.

The event was held virtually, of course, as most every event held in the past year has been, but not only that; a thread running through this year’s conference, which focused on the concept of working together for a resilient urban future, was how the pandemic has accelerated change towards that goal.

A wholly unexpected catalyst has been thrust upon us, highlighting the changes that can be made. Homeworking has meant less commuting meaning fewer cars on the road, and we have developed an increased appreciation of nature and green spaces, for example.


Sharon Durdant-Hollamby, vice president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF), welcoming delegates, said: “You’re joining this conference at a critical time in history. A tipping point for climate change and biodiversity, a time of unprecedented economic and social upheaval.

“In many ways, the pandemic has just accelerated trends that were already trickling through, such as a changing high street and changing work patterns.”

Forestry Journal: Sharon Durdant-Hollamby, ICF vice president, welcomed delegates to the conference.Sharon Durdant-Hollamby, ICF vice president, welcomed delegates to the conference.

It is our privilege and a responsibility to be part of the climate change solution, Sharon said, and trees have a role to play in that. “We know it’s not just about planting X number of trees to satisfy a politician’s promise and then walking away,” she continued. “It is about understanding what we already have in the natural world, protecting it, managing it and giving people the chance to intimately know and influence their local spaces.”

However, this can’t be achieved alone, which is why TPBE4 has brought together people from different professions, backgrounds and countries. “We’re here to share fresh thinking on building a truly green recovery.”

Professor Alan Jones, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), chaired the opening address. He said: “It is acknowledged that the pandemic will have a tremendous impact upon the future of place, identity, well-being and belonging. We must all think hard about what we can do to create environmental equity; everyone having good quality air, space and light, safe and healthy places to work, meet and play, to live in and to grow up in.”

Forestry Journal: Professor Alan Jones, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.Professor Alan Jones, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

He then introduced keynote speaker Professor Brian Evans, whose presentation was entitled ‘Imagining the ecologies of place’.

We are living in the first century where those living in the city exceed those living in the rural area, and it is only through cities that we can accommodate the sort of numbers living on Earth today, Professor Evans explained.

“So numerous are our people that we are, in effect, swarming the Earth. So, we are pushing the capability of the planet to sustain our demands beyond the threshold for sustaining life itself.

Forestry Journal: Professor Brian Evans delivered the opening keynote address on the ecologies of place.Professor Brian Evans delivered the opening keynote address on the ecologies of place.

“The challenges of our numbers are by no means inconsequential. Every country faces challenges of demographic, climate and technological change, and they interact with one another. Ageing, low fertility, migration – common in the developed nations of the north – together with the opportunities and challenges of automation, artificial intelligence and the omnivalent proposition of climate change itself, combine to be a cycle that can be toxic or benign, depending on the understanding of our leaders.”

The COVID-19 pandemic puts health at the very centre of this, Professor Evans said.

“Can anybody any longer be in any doubt that health and climate change are critically interrelated? And indeed, although the pandemic is clear, short-term and something we must address every day, and climate change is longer-term, taking place over a number of years, nonetheless these two fundamental sets of changes present the principal challenge and opportunity that we face today.

“This requires that we recalibrate, retool, and reimagine our approach to the land, to our people, to the city and, critically, to the interaction between these things.”


This session focused on the role of trees in supporting ambitions to create places where people and nature can co-exist and thrive in man-made urban environments.

Professor Paul Chatterton of the University of Leeds’ keynote presentation, ‘Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A Manifesto for Real Change’, examined the environmental challenges we face and how we can develop interventions in our cities and towns in response to these challenges.

The seeds of many of the features which one might consider equating to a more liveable urban life – better green space, better work-life balance and less transport – were sown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Chatterton said, before posing the question: ‘How can we take what we have learned from the pandemic and translate that into a fairer, sustainable, more nature-friendly future?’

One of Professor Chatterton’s recommendations was a new ‘city–nature’ deal with rewilding, mass greening and wildlife biodiversity.

“This needs a new approach to planning and urban design,” he explained. “This is a new approach to green placemaking where we start to weave together blue/green infrastructure, agriculture, urban food production, rewilding, and biodiversity gains. The key thing is a new relationship with non-human species, in particular, bringing species much closer to us … This means a huge reallocation of urban land towards those gains, especially carbon sequestration and biodiversity.”

We have started to see the move towards this during COVID-19, Professor Chatterton said, where access to green space has been key for mental well-being. “We need to redesign our urban spaces to increase well-being, especially in times of pandemics,” he added.

Other speakers included Dr Nadina Galle, Sophie Nitoslawski, Professor Chris Rogers, and Emeritus Professor Alan Simson. The session was chaired by Ed McCann, vice president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.


This session aimed to explore emerging research and ideas, stressing the importance of integrating trees and the natural world in urban decision-making.

Professor Ian Bateman, director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute, University of Kent Business School, presented the keynote presentation ‘A Natural Capital Approach to Decision-making for Future Woodlands’.

A natural capital approach is based on two inescapable facts, Professor Bateman said. Human wants exceed the resources available to satisfy them all; and because of these resource constraints, every time we decide to do one thing, we are in effect deciding not to do another. These trade-offs mean there are no costless choices, and we are implicitly placing values on each option when we decide.

Forestry Journal: Professor Ian Bateman presented on taking a natural capital approach to decision-making for future woodlands.Professor Ian Bateman presented on taking a natural capital approach to decision-making for future woodlands.

Professor Bateman went on to list three vital areas that should be brought into decision-making. “It’s got to be sustainable – if we are running down natural capital stocks, it’s not sustainable; it’s got to be efficient – because we’ve got limited resources and we have to use them in the best way; and it’s got to be equitable – because people care about who gets what.”

Other speakers included Dr Gemma Jerome, Chris Bouch, and Kathy Wolf. The session was chaired by Jane Findlay, president of the Landscape Institute.


This session aimed to address longer-term existential threats beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, including natural capital decline, the impact of climate change on the urban environment, and the habitability of towns and cities.

Yvonne Lynch, urban greening strategist for the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, presented on ‘Governance and Urban Trees’, in which she drew upon her own experiences working in the cities of Melbourne in Australia and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

“Now more than ever it is critical for us to think about how we are designing our cities, how we have designed them in the past and how we plan to design into the future because what we know is over 50 per cent of the world is now living in cities and we know that’s going to increase to somewhere between 70–80 per cent of the population by 2050,” Yvonne explained.

Any good policy starts with looking at best practice, Yvonne went on. “If you want to design a new policy, start looking at cities around the world. Who is leading in the field and what are they doing, and most importantly, how are they doing it?”

Forestry Journal: Q&A sessions were held throughout the conference.Q&A sessions were held throughout the conference.

Yvonne highlighted Singapore as an example. “In Melbourne, before we put in place a tree strategy and an urban forest strategy, we looked at Singapore and what they did – they set a very strong vision for what they wanted to achieve, and that vision was to create a city within a garden – very clear, short, simple; everybody could imagine what that would be – and in policy and strategy it is really critical, as well as looking at best practice, that we look at what the vision is.

“It’s not about having the right data and the right numbers; it’s also about being creative enough to imagine and visualise a better future.”

Other speakers included Amy Burbidge, Dr Aleksandra Berditchevskaia, and Dr Athanasios Paschalis. The session was chaired by Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute.


This session looked at ensuring that the cross-disciplinary collaboration required to achieve the changes needed is in place.

Mille Bojer, director at Reos Partners, spoke on ‘Transformative Collaboration’. Rios Partners specialises in supporting multi-stakeholder collaboration around crucial and complex social challenges, and has worked on projects around the world, including inclusive insurance in Mongolia, climate adaptation in Namibia, and regional development in the Netherlands.

Other speakers included Professor Stephanie Glendinning, Kevin Lafferty, and Richard Hauer. The session was chaired by Dr Emma Wilcox, chief executive of the Society for the Environment.

Forestry Journal: Jane Findlay, president of the Landscape Institute.Jane Findlay, president of the Landscape Institute.


The aim of Trees, People and the Built Environment 4’s final session was to encourage delegates to put forward their own ideas for change by creating an empowering framework for action.

From over 20 ideas received, a judging panel selected 10. A vote was then held, out of which the top five emerged. The overall winner will then be moved forward.

The ideas were evaluated on three key criteria – innovation, impact, and implementation potential.

The first idea came from Dr Kathy Wolf from the University of Washington, who presented on introducing a plant-based urban ecosystems curriculum in schools.

“If we can look at the arc of influence across our communities, this offers incredible opportunities to connect to many, to thousands, maybe even millions of people. Part of my big idea is that we connect to local ecosystems, local history, and local cultures,” Dr Wolf explained.

The intention would be to show the connection between trees, ecosystem, industry, culture and community. “To not let that go is a way to engage people more directly, particularly children, in the ecosystems of the area,” Dr Wolf added.

Author and researcher Tim Gill’s idea focused on the concept of slow playgrounds, which would feature climbable tree species, hide-and-seek planting, and naturalistic structures.

“In picturing this idea, I couldn’t do better than point you to Valby Park, a huge public park in Copenhagen. It is, in effect, a massive natural playground. It was built as a free alternative to a theme park and it is a really rich, inviting, engaging place.”

These playgrounds would utilise small, medium and large trees, tree houses, tree swings, even dead trees, leaves, seeds and more.

Why this idea? “We need more trees, we need more people to love trees,” explained Tim. “We need big, bold ideas that grab people’s attention.”

The third idea was presented by Dr Nadina Galle, who spoke on bridging the divide between green cities and smart cities. “As an urban ecological engineer, I have gone through hundreds of municipal agendas and visions for green cities and also smart cities, in which technology is used to improve both the quality of life and government services,” explained Dr Galle.

“I always thought that it was so strange that green cities and smart cities seem to run parallel to one another in their own little silos when they both want the same outcomes.”

Dr Galle’s idea is to bring green cities and smart cities together through the ‘internet of nature’. This is a framework for employing emerging technologies to provide actual data and insights on urban nature.

Forestry Journal: Delegates were able to visit the virtual exhibition hall.Delegates were able to visit the virtual exhibition hall.

“The internet of nature will help planners, foresters, and practitioners in multiple ways, like using drones for pest detection, plant ID apps for crowdsourcing biodiversity data, satellite imagery for ecosystem service analysis, mining social media for discerning public opinion on green spaces, or even using Google Street View to map urban tree canopy at the street level.”

Landscape designer Barry McKenna’s idea is to create forest gardens in urban areas.

“The view is that municipal forest gardens could be an improvement on traditional urban allotments,” he explained. “A forest garden is modelled on the structure of young natural woodland … They are by their nature very low maintenance and they are very diverse in plant species.”

Forest gardens replicate natural woodlands, storing a lot of carbon both in vegetation and soil, Barry said. They promote well-being, they are valuable resources for education and can provide locally grown, nutritious, organic food.

Barry acknowledged that despite these benefits, forest gardens remain relatively obscure.

He added: “On the subject of allotments and agriculture, I would suggest that the traditional way of doing things is not necessarily the best way forward. Digging and turning soil and an over-reliance on annual vegetables and grains appears to be a bit of a folly. We really should be working on perennial foods … All that is missing is the spark to get this going.”

The final presentation was given by Julia Thrift, director of the Town and Country Planning Association, whose idea is to transform greenbelt land into accessibly productive woodland and local food-growing spaces to improve people’s health, create jobs near urban areas, and reduce food miles.

“Many towns and cities in England and other countries have an area of greenbelt land around them, and in people’s imaginations they often think it is beautiful, lush, rolling countryside but in practice, it is very often quite rundown, poor quality land,” Julia explained, adding that just because it is designated as greenbelt doesn’t mean that it is productive or useful to the people living in urban areas.

Physical inactivity and poor diet are huge problems for western societies, and Julia’s suggestion is that we create walking and cycle paths from the centre of urban areas out to the greenbelt, that we have walking and cycle paths around towns and cities going through the greenbelt, and that we invest in planting trees and having small-scale agriculture that could improve soil conditions. This could create jobs and provide food that could be sent back into towns and cities without food miles.

After the presentations, delegates were given the opportunity to vote for their favourite idea via the event app, and Julia Thrift was named as the overall winner.

She commented: “I feel a bit speechless because I thought the other ideas that were put forward were absolutely brilliant and I would hate for them not to be taken forward as well.” Julia then called for the other ideas to be promoted and given as much enthusiasm and support as possible.

She added: “There is a much better understanding of the multiple values of green infrastructure than there was even a few years ago, so just because similar ideas haven’t succeeded in the past shouldn’t be a barrier to trying once more to do something with that wonderful land that is so underused at the moment.”

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