As Toronto pushes to expand its forest cover, one startup is aiming to connect cities and citizens with digital tools that will broaden our knowledge of the city’s tree canopy.
Born at Ryerson University’s Urban Forest Research and Ecological Disturbance group, Citytrees has spent the past three years inputting urban tree data into a custom-built web app.
The app, which uses Google Maps as a canvas and draws on know-how from the US Forest Service and pin-dropping technology popularized by Uber, allows users to add information to a growing online repository of urban forest data. By collecting details about species (photos of leaves and bark are provided to assist non-arborists), estimated height, and canopy size, the Ryerson team hopes to promote understanding of the vital work done by urban trees: they capture carbon dioxide, cool buildings, reduce air pollution and stormwater runoff — in other words, they help cities adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Toronto’s estimated 10 million trees, which have a structural value of $7 billion, contribute roughly $28 million to the economy through the ecological benefits they provide. The city’s goal is to increase its canopy cover from roughly 28 per cent to 40 per cent.
Andrew Millward, co-founder of Citytrees and a geography professor at Ryerson, says the idea for the app was inspired by his time on campus. “I’ve observed a lot of reactionary responses to everything urban tree-related here, from downed to infected trees,” he told a stakeholder meeting in August. The campus has more than 500 trees, he said, but little data on their diversity, age, or condition is captured in municipal forest management plans.
“Urban forests should be viewed as one large ecosystem and not as a collection of disjointed and disconnected patches of trees,” Millward tells me via email. Currently, though, the information we have about them is gathered and kept by a variety of different groups. “Our goal is to connect all of these data in a virtual sense,” he says, “and help us to understand the interconnectedness and interdependence of our urban forest as an ecosystem.”
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The challenge for Millward and Citytrees co-founder Nikesh Bhagat is getting urban tree canopy data collectors to use their app as a central repository — doing so will be challenging, as 60 percent of Toronto’s trees are on private land. Even if Millward and Bhagat manage to convince the City and the majority of its landowners to sign up, without significant buy-in from private residents who want to share details of the northern red oak in their backyard, substantial gaps will remain.
But it’s critical that such a comprehensive resource be created. In Toronto, Millward says, many areas with large, old trees lack the younger, medium-sized ones that should eventually take their place. An intuitive open-source system would foster community stewardship of trees — he envisions Citytrees helping cities and even individual neighbourhoods develop smart plans for cultivating diverse generations of new, privately owned trees.
Justin Nadeau, the Green Projects team leader at the Toronto District School Board, knows the value of a rich data set. He says that at one point, more than 4,000 of the board’s 35,000 trees were ash. But the emerald ash borers that arrived in Toronto in 2002 devastated the population, and only 1,200 remain.
It’s easier to manage the removal of large numbers of dead and dying ash when you know exactly where those trees are. Since 2003, the board has collaborated with students from the University of Toronto’s forest conservation program to create inventories, called “neighbourwoods,” of trees on school properties. While data has been logged internally for the last 14 years, Nadeau says, keeping it standardized and up-to-date is tough. And the information is not available in a user-friendly public format.
That’s where Citytrees comes in. For the past two years, Nadeau has been working with Millward and Bhagat on the web app, investing TDSB money and submitting tree data while suggesting changes to improve user experience, like making it easier to input details offline. “I see Citytrees as the public-facing side of our community and student involvement,” Nadeau says.
The tool will also enhance the educational experience. Instead of referring to a printed document that plots the Austrian pines and Norway maples dotting their schoolyard, teachers and students will now be able to input their own citizen science data while learning about each tree’s environmental benefits. “Citytrees will become a key to engaging students at our schools in a more dynamic way,” Nadeau says. “It will also give teachers more confidence to understand what’s in their schoolyard and talk about that with their students.”
Andrew Reeves is a Toronto-based freelance environmental journalist.
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