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IU researchers studying urban forests in Bloomington backyards

After this spring's violent storms, hundreds of trees in Bloomington and Monroe County were damaged or lost entirely, significantly changing the face of the area's urban forest landscape. While there's no question that Mother Nature has effected dramatic change, urban residents can have a far greater impact over time, notes IU geographer Tom Evans.

Evans, Burney Fischer of IU's School of Environmental and Public Affairs and colleagues at IU Bloomington's Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change (CIPEC) are leading a study of how interactions between people, their social and governmental institutions and the environment influence the sustainability of urban ecosystems. The study includes a survey of urban land management in Bloomington.

"More than half the world's population now lives in urban areas, and that figure is projected to increase in the future," says Evans, director of CIPEC and an associate professor in IU Bloomington's Department of Geography. "Most urban trees are on private land, so we have a limited understanding of how landowners make decisions with respect to their trees, especially how institutions in urban areas influence owners' land management choices."

Campus Tree Cleanup

Recent windstorms caused extensive damage to trees on the IU Bloomington campus and in the surrounding area, but new trees will be planted and will mature over time. IU researchers are studying how property owners make decisions that affect the urban forest.

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At the beginning of June, the CIPEC group sent surveys to about 1,000 residents of 14 neighborhoods in Bloomington. The survey is aimed at gathering information about how area residents manage their lawns, trees, and other landscaped areas, with specific questions focused on decisions regarding tree plantings and removals.

After survey data is collected, Evans and his colleagues will combine the data with satellite imagery, geographic information systems (GIS) analysis, and interviews to analyze the factors influencing the sustainability of urban forests in our area. The overall goal, Evans says, is to learn how institutions shape our household-level decision-making when it comes to tending our trees.

"Our current research in Bloomington addresses the influence of municipal governance as well as neighborhood and homeowners associations on the structure of urban forests at both parcel and neighborhood scales," says SPEA Ph.D. student Sarah Mincey, whose dissertation research focuses on issues related to the Bloomington study.

Evans encourages all area recipients to complete the simple survey and return it. As an incentive, recipients may request a free 20-minute ecological survey of their property, conducted by IU researchers who will identify and measure species of trees and estimate the carbon content of vegetation on the homeowner's property.

CIPEC researchers are conducting other urban ecosystems research projects in south-central Indiana, including analyses of the influence of municipal zoning institutions on tree canopy cover in Bloomington and of the social and ecological factors influencing tree success in neighborhood-initiated tree plantings around Indianapolis.

CIPEC research is supported by the Indiana Community and Urban Forestry Program, IU's Center for Research in Environmental Science (CRES), the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs Sustainability Award and the Garden Club of America Fellowship in Urban Forestry (awarded to Sarah Mincey).

The Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change is supported in part by IU Bloomington's Office of the Vice Provost for Research.