In June, the Oregon Department of Forestry hired Scott Altenhoff to lead its Urban and Community Forestry Assistance program. Previously, Altenhoff worked as an urban forester for the City of Eugene, where he became aware of temperature disparities due to differences in tree cover between economically disadvantaged and affluent neighborhoods. In 2014, he worked with community members to direct city crews to plant more trees in West Eugene and launched annual maintenance cycles for their upkeep. Today, Altenhoff has a new target: school campuses that he says are in dire need of “green infrastructure” to promote health, improve air quality and combat social inequity. Scott Altenhoff joins us to talk about his vision and the key threats facing urban forests, from climate change to invasive species.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Oregon has a new leader of its Urban Forestry Program; Scott Altenhoff was hired by the Oregon Department of Forestry in June. It is his job to support cities and community groups in planting and maintaining trees in urban areas. He takes this job at a critical time with climate change, highlighting both the need for more trees and the lack of tree canopies in poorer neighborhoods. Scott Altenhoff previously worked for the City of Eugene and he joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Scott Altenhoff: Good afternoon Dave. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today.
Miller: How do you define urban forestry?
Altenhoff: Excellent question. There are many definitions, but in essence, I like to distinguish urban forestry, which is the enterprise that manages the relationship between people and trees, trees and forests where people live work and play, in contrast to those forests that might be wilderness areas or working forests or peri-urban forests; these are the trees that we see out our windows, these are the trees and forests that contribute greatly to our health and well being.
Miller: You have a background as a commercial arborist and forestry surveyor and then you started working for the city of Eugene. Why were you attracted to urban forestry in particular?
Altenhoff: I spent about two decades working in the forests and loved that work, but always felt that something was missing and that was the interplay, my background was in the humanities and I found myself longing to do more than just manage trees and forests and natural ecosystems, but to make that benefit the broader world, and I realized my sweet spot was the nexus of trees and people and thus, urban forestry just was a natural choice.
Miller: Last year we talked to the Portland State University researcher Vivek Shandas about the differences in the numbers of trees planted in, in different neighborhoods, broadly in wider, richer neighborhoods, there are more and bigger trees – meaning more shade, and the opposite is true in neighborhoods with more poor people and more people of color. That was in Portland that he was talking about, where he’s done a lot of his research. What have you found in other cities in Oregon?
Altenhoff: I just want to give a shout out to Vivek and his team. He’s been a major source of inspiration and knowledge. I consider him a friend and a mentor, and if I’m being honest, I was working with him and bringing him down to Eugene to do an urban heat island assessment that really opened my eyes to the critical disparities between the presence of trees and, and the connections between trees and human well-being, whether psychological or physical or even economic, commercial well-being as it were, for shopkeepers and merchants and such. So back in 2016, we started that endeavor and I think it’s fair to say that the same patterns that have been seen in Portland apply in Eugene. Certainly, Eugene has a different demographic makeup. We’re not as diverse as Portland, but the same basic issues apply and the same historical influences apply.
Specifically redlining and systematic racism.
Miller: So what do you do with that? Actually, what did you do with that in Eugene? And then we can get to the bigger canvas you have to play with now. But how did you approach that as one of the people working on urban forestry in Eugene for a number of years?
Altenhoff: Yes. So urban forests are complex social-ecological systems and…amazing complexity. So the initial task was to try and understand what is going on and to tease apart the threads and the trends and so forth, and still working to better understand that, but the next step is to start some pilot projects, some strategic interventions and these are experiments, but well informed experiments that we know if we have a lack of tree cover and likewise, a number of the priority indicators, socio-economic indicators that could include the percentage of folks in poverty, the percentage of seniors or of young children or people of color or the percentage of folks that are unemployed. Those factors, as Vivek has pointed out time and time again, the correlation between tree cover and affluence and human well-being is unmistakable. So we thought let’s plant some more trees. Let’s first identify where the trees are or are not, and then let’s do what we can to plant some more trees and monitor how the socio-economic situation changes or how the environmental conditions change. And as you mentioned earlier, the urban Heat Island is one of the things we’re most worried about, but that’s just one of many environmental factors that we’re trying to improve. In addition to temperature, we’re looking at air quality, we’re looking at sound levels which can have major impacts on psychological well-being, we’re looking at that one…
Miller: So I understand that one. So more trees means a quieter place because the trees absorb the sound waves?
Altenhoff: Yes, trees are remarkable in their ability to attenuate sound, to absorb it and break it up and dissipate it so that it doesn’t feel like…so whether that’s traffic noise, or just the general urban growl, it softens things…likewise from an aesthetic standpoint, the harsh lines of concrete and, and buildings are softened and it just has a known beneficial effect on human psychology. People feel better. People behave better and people think a little more clearly – and that’s been demonstrated in studies with schools and student performance, with a view to trees and green infrastructure.
Miller: In Portland, property owners have to pay for the maintenance of street trees in front of their homes or in the parking strips in front of their homes. Not every city in the country is set up that way. Is that an impediment to low income people actually wanting trees because it can be expensive to have them pruned?
Altenhoff: Yes, I think it is definitely an impediment. And I know the decision makers in Portland have been looking for several decades now. They’ve long recognized that it may not be the ideal situation to incentivize tree ownership and care, but to go from the current model to an ideal model would be very expensive and I think it’s fair to say they’re well on their way to making that transition, but it can’t be done overnight. And many municipalities have a different model in which, for instance, in Eugene, the street trees are owned by the city and the expectation is that the city will manage their care, whether that’s pruning or removal. Now that said, we recognize, if the city is doing everything, the city can’t do everything. So we definitely, despite the expectation, the legal expectation, we reach out and we work with neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations to spread the load and do a little bit more with less. And that has what, in Eugene’s case, has allowed us to do is add a little more or spend a little more time and effort in disadvantaged areas or historically disadvantaged areas to balance the benefits and the burdens associated with trees and green infrastructure.
Miller: Is there low hanging fruit, so to speak, in terms of boosting tree canopies statewide. Where are you going to start your efforts?
Altenhoff: That is a fantastic question. We can’t do it all at once. So it just makes sense to stratify so to break our population of trees, urban trees, into distinct categories and then go for the highest priority populations of trees, ideally those trees which will benefit the greatest number of people and those folks that have historically not had direct access to those benefits. So in my case after doing some analysis in Eugene and then seeing if it applied statewide, I’ve come to realize that school yards have some of the lowest tree canopy cover of any land use type across the state.
Miller: Why is that?
Altenhoff: Well, I believe that Measure Five, the property tax measure that passed in the early ‘90s when public budgets were really impacted heavily. It was a natural choice, if given the choice to lay off teachers or cut school programs or alternately to reduce maintenance burdens, it was a logical choice. But now, given what we know about the beneficial nature of trees, engineering green infrastructure on human health and school performance and such, now’s the time to make up for that historic problem.
Miller: The original reason, if you’re right about the reason why there are fewer trees is because districts all across the state made these financial decisions that they looked and said, well, instead of cutting teachers, let’s cut some of the maintenance cost of trees. I don’t imagine that that basic calculus has changed. I also don’t imagine that your state agency is going to give them millions of dollars to plant or take care of trees. So, what’s the solution?
Altenhoff: Great question. So what I envision is a way of empowering neighborhoods. We know that school campuses often serve as parks for immediate neighbors. So my dream and vision is to engage neighborhoods, nonprofit organizations like Friends of Trees or Verde [www.verdenw.org] or the Blueprint Foundation [www.theblueprintfoundation.org], philanthropic organizations and like Kiwanis or the Lions Club etcetera, to really play a role, not just in planting trees, that’s the easy part. The hard part is long term maintenance. So I recognize that unfunded mandate, even if we would say, ‘Okay, we’re going to plant a million new trees on school campuses throughout Oregon,’ the chances of that succeeding are very low if we don’t provide options for care or solutions for care provision, outlining roles, responsibilities, identifying and making funding available for that.
Miller: But it also sounds like part of your vision, it does rely on nongovernmental entities, on volunteers or nonprofits, or community groups or just neighbors coming together. Do I get that right?
Altenhoff: You do Indeed. Community engagement is essential. This can’t be perceived, if we’re really going to make headway, with promoting environmental justice and social equity, this can’t be something that we, the government, do to or for neighbors and neighborhoods, it has to be something that we do with them. And so the initial steps of this, I’m going to spend the next couple of years doing a lot of engagement and listening, to understand what neighbors and communities want and need and then work with them to help trees be part of that solution.
Miller: You mentioned Friends of Trees, a pretty well known nonprofit that has worked a lot in Portland and Eugene as well. The city of Portland recently chose not to renew a longstanding contract with the nonprofit. The decision, as outlined last month in some really great reporting by OPB’s own April Ehrlich, was tied to Bureaucratic infighting that has a lot to do with Portland’s particular form of city government, weird form of city government. But I’m wondering if it’s also evidence of a broader issue here – that if a lot of people could be in charge of planting or taking care of trees in any given area, that nobody is truly in charge, it kind of, it falls into a no-man’s land of governance.
Altenhoff: Very true. And that’s why it will be very essential to line out or articulate or clarify roles and responsibilities, what I, as a state employee can do, and what our agency, the technical and financial assistance that we can provide, needs to be parsed out and delimited from what nonprofits can do, and neighborhood associations and groups can do, really approaching things at the cultural level and building that grassroots support, and then identifying other cross-sector partners, such as business partners who are going to be essential to this process. My dream involves engaging arborists and landscaping companies to find a way to plug into this so that they can help their livelihood and their businesses, but doing it, doing so in such a way that it’s working with neighborhoods, not just paying the bills as it were.
Miller: How does climate change affect the way you think about your work going forward?
Altenhoff: Well, you can’t open the paper or read a news article or hear something without hearing about the dire impacts of climate change. So, here in Oregon, I think the urban heat island and the temperature factor we’ve experienced, so many deaths unnecessarily because we historically didn’t take this seriously enough, soon enough. We’re making corrections quickly, but also with regard to flooding, severe weather, and such, it’s an existential threat, no doubt about it, not just for human life, but for our economy and for the myriad of organisms that depend on healthy forests and healthy soil and so forth. So, in everything I do, it is my cardinal problem. And then I’m just trying to use trees, I know trees are a great countermeasure to these problems. There are multiple co-benefits, so it’s not just providing shade, it’s providing shade along with economic development opportunities, human health opportunities and benefits and so forth. So just trying to link efforts so that we’re not focusing on singular initiatives but multifunctional initiatives or efforts.
Miller: We’ve also talked, but recently on this show about the dire need for more housing in Oregon, given that there’s a deficit of something like 110,000 units. In terms of carbon emissions, it would be better if many of those new homes were in cities close to transit and shops and jobs. To what extent is urban development at odds with a more robust tree canopy?
Altenhoff: Wow, you’re getting to the essence of what I dwell upon on a daily basis. So, urban growth policies here in Oregon are noteworthy and exceptional, and I think they’re a great thing, but they have put a lended intensity to the conflict for space between housing and green infrastructure and so forth. So it has really exacerbated the conflict for space, and I think our challenge, what we need to do is set our sights on finding that win - win situation. In the case of Eugene, with the recent middle housing discussion, the mandate to open up middle housing opportunities for folks, I think that’s a good thing, but there was an attempt to use trees as a wedge, to divide the density-proponent advocates from the folks who wanted lower density and so-called more livability, but I think it’s a fool’s choice, and I think we’ve got to get beyond that. Our cities have a limited amount of space and to reach the critical mass that we seek with regard to transportation options, whether that’s light-rail or whatever we’re talking about, we need a little more density, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of our tree canopy cover, or our green infrastructure or our general livability. We just need to design better and balance the factors.
Miller: Scott Altenhoff, thanks very much.
Altenhoff: Thank you so much.
Miller: Scott Altenhoff is the new Manager of the Urban and Community Forestry Assistance Program at the Oregon Department of Forestry.
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