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Expert Q&A: Bill Burch, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Bill Burch’s four decades of work linking ecological enhancement to community development has earned him the reputation as a pioneer of community forestry.

William R. Burch, Jr., Emeritus Hixon Professor of Natural Resource Management/Senior Research Scientist

Bill Burch has been referred to as a pioneer of urban and community forestry. For more than four decades, he has founded and directed interdisciplinary programs, developed and conducted research, crafted and taught courses, and authored and edited books on the paradigm-shifting notion that ecological enhancement and community development are inextricably linked.

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In addition to teaching and advising at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Dr. Burch was the first Director of both the Yale Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) and the Yale Urban Resources Initiative (URI), a program that uses parks and forests to revitalize communities and ecosystems in the Baltimore and New Haven metro areas. From 1997-2006, Dr. Burch was a co-Principal Investigator with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES), which grew out of the work of the URI. The BES is one of only two urban sites in the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research Network. Dr. Burch also served as PI for a five-year restoration monitoring and evaluation effort for five stream valley park systems in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Parks.

Do you consider the terms “urban forestry” and “community forestry” to be synonymous? If not, how do you define each?

Urban Forestry is a place based approach. Community forestry is a process approach, where the forestry is the organizing principle, and the botanical intervention is a means rather than an end. The goal of community forestry is the empowerment of the local community to gain greater control over their immediate environment. To understand the options and consequences in choosing certain options. To sustain their access to the multiple resources this environment can provide the community. To emphasize the participation and responsibility of all members of the community in the decisions about their environment (women, children, non-scheduled castes, etc.). To ensure equity in that those who bear the costs reap the benefits before outside elites. To sustain the gains and future hopes of the community. With community forestry our mission as professionals is to be facilitators in the attainment of these goals.

Place based forestry, like urban forestry or farm forestry, usually involves top down approaches concentrating on the biotic community. This is a field with a long and important history. In many settings, there can be an overlay of community forestry processes to establish and sustain various horticultural activities.

While working for USAID on natural resources projects in Southeast Asia, you served as director of the Institute of Forestry Project in Tribuvahn University in Nepal. Can you tell me about your work there?

Tribuvahn University’s forestry program had campuses in the Terai (lowland) and Pahad (Himalayan foothills) regions of Nepal, where villagers practice slash and burn agriculture. When I was with USAID, some environmentalists, including Lester Brown, had been blaming villagers for the degradation of forest resources, and urging foresters to change the villagers’ agricultural practices. Our job was to train professional foresters who were trapped in that top down, authoritarian vision to instead try to understand the villagers’ needs so they could develop new, sustainable solutions.

Villager in Bajahng District of Nepal

I always use the mantra: the tree is not the end, but the means for building stronger, self-sustaining human communities. That statement is a big shock for foresters, because they are typically focused on the tree-on making it grow faster and bigger so they can cut it down and convert it into pulp, fuel wood, etc. In Nepal, we turned that upside down by getting foresters to go out in the field and work with the communities from the perspective of a villager, rather than a forestry professional. For example, rather than saying “We should grow eucalyptus because it is a rapidly growing species,” we wanted the foresters to say, “Let’s start by seeing what the villagers need, and how they use vegetation.” Eucalyptus is a great choice for timber companies, but since it is allelopathic and kills everything that grows around it, it is not a good choice for villagers who use tree material to feed their livestock. That kind of shift in perception and action was what we were preparing those foresters to do.

This work may not have been the kind of nation building that a lot of intellectuals want, but it worked. We helped train local people to do their jobs in a way that contributed to the quality of life for villagers out in the countryside. Rather than try to change their behavior, we moved the villagers back to traditional practices, but enhanced those practices with an underpinning of scientific knowledge. We also prepared nurseries with the kinds of products they could plant.

The program was so successful that villagers started showing people from other villages what they were doing, and it caught on. The villagers ultimately became the teachers. That led to the formation of the Forestry Users Group (FUG), which was formed by the Nepali villagers, not by a bunch of Australians and Americans telling them what to do. Once you rehabilitate the landscape, the rich people often come in and take it over. FUG helped the villagers gain political power, which helped them put pressure on the government to respect their rights to their land and the benefits they created with their forests. Today, there are hundreds of FUGs, formally networked through the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal.

In remarks during a 1990 forestry conference in Nepal, you said, “Science, in its modern form…is a Western vision. To seek new explanations there is a move to more Eastern patterns of thought and philosophy.” What eastern thought patterns have you found to be the most powerful in advancing the field of urban ecology?

Most of it comes from Daoism and the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, where the believer is part of the entire ecosystem-part of an infinite wonder. Humans are not a dominant species, but a cooperator with the life patterns of ecosystems. Buddhism and Daoism are very much ecological philosophies. Daoism also emphasizes water and its importance to the overall ecosystem.

The problem with ecology was always, “where are the boundaries?” The Hubbard Brook studies in New Hampshire used the watershed as their unit of analysis, and I see Buddhism and Daoism as the philosophical underpinning to that approach. When you push an encompassing vision in a scientific field, you will reach edges where you have questions and no answers. Philosophical underpinnings are important because we need to know how to explore some of those questions. The ecologist Paul Sears said, “The ecological scientist climbs and climbs the mountain, and when he reaches the top he finds the foot prints of the poet.” The philosopher leads us into questions we hadn’t previously considered.

Over 30 years ago, you founded the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies’ Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), a program to support students pursuing interdisciplinary research on resource management and conservation issues in the tropics. What was the mission of the TRI and what were some of the most important lessons students have brought back from that experience that pertain to urban/community forestry?

The mission of the program was to support interdisciplinary, problem-oriented student research on the most complex challenges confronting the conservation and management of tropical environments and natural resources worldwide.  We worked in Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nepal, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Our interns, as well as our instructors, learned that listening is more productive than talking. Local people have legitimate knowledge that can balance the scientific rationality in making resource decisions. “Green growies”—trees, flowers, garden plants—are measured values only within the frame of reference of the people who must live with and care for them. All environmental decisions are political and all politics are local.

How did you come to start the Urban Resources Initiative, which applied the approach you took in Nepal and in the TRI to the inner-city of Baltimore?

In the late 1980s, while serving on a committee to advise the National Park Service on research needs, I met Ralph Jones, a fellow committee member who had just been appointed Director of Baltimore’s Parks and Recreation Department. Ralph and I hit it off, and quickly realized that we were a minority of two. He was a black man leading a new department in Baltimore and I was this guy working out of Nepal. A lot of people on our committee were concerned about people “loving parks to death.” Ralph and I both thought, “Geez, just as African Americans are getting interested in parks, these guys want to keep people out!” We talked about what I was doing in Nepal and overseas and he asked, “Why aren’t you doing that in Baltimore?”

That is how it started. We set out to make Baltimore’s Parks and Recreation Department a community development group. If you look at a city, you essentially have villages crammed together. We just happen to call them neighborhoods. Our vision was to bring the experiences of my work with villages into the inner city. We also wanted to follow Hubbard Brook’s lead and use the watershed as the unit of analysis.

Yale funded the initiative and we started with a trial student. Tragically, Ralph had a heart attack and died before the program really got started. There was some push back from the City’s interim director. They asked me, “why should we support rich kids from Yale to do something city kids could do?” I told him “you’ll get a lot for your investment and you’ll end up employing more city kids.”

Baltimore’s main watersheds—the Jones Falls, the Gwynns Falls, and Herring Run—contain many neighborhoods, and they differ in structure, income level, quality of life, etc. Those different neighborhoods were linked by their watershed, but they just didn’t know it. To make those watershed communities a functioning system, we had to do many things.

First, we had to transform the parks department staff from being guys who rode around in lawn mowers to being teachers and active ecologists for the city of Baltimore. We needed to retrain the professional, technical staff. Then, we needed to bring in the neighborhood, and we chose to do that by involving kids. Even drug dealers are concerned about their kids. We had programs that got kids outside doing science. Every Yale URI intern had to teach a science unit with kids. We didn’t tell the kids it was science; we told them it was fun, and it was. We also developed the Department’s first ever plan that included strong elements of community revitalization and restoration of the biophysical system.

We also had to strengthen the political power of the neighborhoods. We started by having our interns do things to make sure that the services being provided in well-to-do neighborhoods, such as garbage pickup and police protection, were being provided in the underserved neighborhoods. For example, our interns had to call the Public Works Department and explain to them in language that bureaucrats could understand that five generations of garbage had accumulated in abandoned lots, and it needed to get picked up.

We also had to convince people in those three watersheds that their neighborhoods would benefit by linking with each other, just as the FUG helped link efforts in Nepal. We’d say, “You belong to this watershed. If you can link your efforts to those of the other neighborhoods in your watershed, you will gain power. When you have power, everybody’s trash gets get picked up, the police show up when you call 9-1-1, and your parks will become places where you and your kids feel safe.” This led to the forming of the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, and Herring Run Watershed Associations, which have since merged to form Blue Water Baltimore, a regional and powerful advocate for local water quality. Thanks to this work, today you can catch and eat fish in Herring Run, and Gwynns Falls now has an incredible bike path that extends from the city/county line to downtown.

To quote an article about you in the American Journal of Public Health “Baltimore’s neighborhoods blossomed under the URI.” You have just given some examples of that. What were the key factors in the URI’s success, and what were some of the key lessons learned?

We learned that leadership in some of these neighborhoods often came from a single mom who was pissed off at the drug dealers on the corner and wanted to do something about it. Those moms were behind a lot of the visual community revitalization-cleaning up garbage, getting rid of the corner drug sellers, and converting vacant lots to community gardens.

Leadership also suffered when the Mayor moved much of the Department of Recreation and Parks into Public Works. Continuity in leadership was also impacted by having interns who would work with us during summer, but leave in the fall to go back to college. We had to secure funds to have two or three interns remain through the winter to encourage and inspire the local people. Continuity of leadership was a problem. Thankfully, Blue Water Baltimore is carrying on much of the work.

The URI ultimately became the precursor to the first urban site to be studied as part of the Long-Term Ecological Research Network (LTER), the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES). Has the BES applied some of those lessons to their work?

They get their money from the National Science Foundation, an organization that wants to see scientific output. People working on LTER sites are under pressure to produce lots of highly quantitative, highly theoretical research. That doesn’t involve getting down and mingling, doing the local, street-level kind of science we were trying to do. That’s the curse. You get very good GIS stuff, and very abstract stuff from census data. But no one is getting at the music, the vitality of what goes on in the streets of the city.

The book The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology, (of which you are a co-author) presents the story of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. It includes a description of something called the “Human Ecosystem Model.” What is the Human Ecosystem Model, and how did you come to develop it?

The Human Ecosystem Model is a framework for asking questions about the structure and process in human ecosystems. It is a means to help a professional planner, landscape architect, or restoration ecologist know if they have asked the right questions when doing work in communities. It’s like a taxonomic approach. You have units grouped in various ways, and you can see how they structure, and which processes and cycles interact.  If you do that, how do you track the consequences of that action through the system. It is a guide. It helps get planners to come out of their ivory towers and figure out what is going on and what is needed in the neighborhood in order to connect those needs to their grander idea.

The origins of the HEM were in the energy crisis of the 1970s. At that time, a lot of committees were formed to figure out solutions for energy, and for reducing consumption. I was on a committee with many engineers, physicists, hydrologists, and other folks, who were trying to work on this issue. I realized that we had no common framework for talking to each other. We had a confounding set of disconnected dialogues going on. Along with some of my doctoral students and colleagues, I asked, “Can we come up with some means to better join these disciplines to address the energy problem?” We needed a way for these different tribes with different intellectual packets to talk to each other. We came up with a framework for connection. The result, which was published by the University of New Mexico Press, was the beginning of the Human Ecosystem Model.

When the energy crisis ended, so did our related research. But when I started doing work overseas and needed a framework for making decisions about what to concentrate on, I returned to that model. When we started working in Baltimore, we continued to use and refine that model. To go back to the Daoist concept, “everything is connected to everything,” but connections are more important than others, and those switching points are where we must concentrate, because we cannot do everything.

Many of our readers are involved in projects in or involving urban/community forests. How can they use the HEM as a tool to help inform and improve their work?

I’m sure your readers want their wonderful work to be sustained. The only way you can sustain it is by building community investment and perception of benefit from that activity. That’s why the watershed notion was so important to our work in Baltimore. Once people understood that they were part of a watershed and got involved in their piece of a park project like the Gwynns Falls Trail, they wanted to continue. They did so by voluntary effort (doing things like park clean ups and new tree plantings) and by political action (letting the local government know that the project was important to them and needed to be sustained.)

An important part of your readers’ development, management, or restoration plan must be investing in and involving community members as partners. That must be done in a way that is respectful of local people and local knowledge. If you don’t do that, you will come back in 10 years and find that your project is a mess. The HEM can help you identify points of connection that you can make with local people. You talk. You listen. You identify and consider the concerns, needs, and demographics of the community just as you look at what you need in the way of soils, drainage, plants, etc. Then you work together to match the needs of the community with the needs and goals of your project.

In addition to understanding people’s needs and desires, you also should think about the age of the population in the community. That’s where some of that above-the-canopy research can come into play. That can tell you things like the median age of the neighborhood. If you put something down for a youthful population, they may not be there in ten years. You may need to build in age-flexible design that can adapt to the changing characteristics of that neighborhood.

Is there a certain balance or ratio of above-the-canopy, high-level analysis vs. local, on-the-ground, sitting-on-the-stoop-listening knowledge that you recommend in approaching these types of projects?

It will vary. In areas where people take care of their parks and green spaces, high-level stuff may be fine, because it attunes you to population flows or the possible deterioration of a functioning neighborhood. But in other areas, you need both high-level and under-the-canopy work. A nice example of a good balance is the work being done by Erika Svendsen of the US Forest Service’s New York City Urban Field Station in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. They have people who are doing above-the-canopy research looking at flows and changes in population, as well as people who are doing qualitative work on the ground in neighborhoods to find out what people need and want for their parks.

You mentioned the importance of building community investment and perception of the benefit of environmental projects. What have you found to be the key to empowering people in a community to care about their natural resources?

Whether you are in the villages of Nepal or an inner-city neighborhood, it is listening. That takes time because people are afraid to talk to you until they feel comfortable with you. Once you understand what they perceive to be their problems and needs (and you get through the front runners, like jobs), you discover that people are motivated by family and they are concerned about kids, and security.

We had some open space in a neighborhood in Baltimore where the Parks Department wanted to build a playground and do some tree planting. Local people alongside the park said, “we don’t want the playground.” When we talked to them, we found out that they didn’t want the playground because the architect wanted to plant these lovely trees around the perimeter of the park but they wanted to be able to sit on their front stoop and see their children playing. Once we knew that, we could adjust the planting to serve the needs of the community. We must listen and we must avoid architectural determinism.

You have spent four decades conducting research, applying research, and teaching researchers. You have not only taught at Yale and in Nepal, but at other US institutions and at universities in Thailand, New Zealand, China, and Taiwan. What changes have you seen in the way urban forestry is taught, and in the way students are approaching research related to urban forests?

We have come a long way because urban forestry wasn’t even on the radar a couple of decades ago! The Baltimore Ecosystem Study helps gives urban forestry and urban ecology legitimacy, because it says to junior scientists, “It is okay to get your feet wet wandering around a city!”

I am an Oregonian, so I know big trees. When we first came to Baltimore, my students and I stayed in a building that was on property belonging to the zoo. On the back side of the zoo, I saw some of the biggest trees I had ever seen in the northeast. Baltimore has incredibly gorgeous forest, and so does Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. But those forests are all aging, and they will decline without the infrastructure to repair and replace them. The realization that these forests are worth rehabilitating is there. The fact that there are now professional courses and conferences on urban forestry demonstrate that there has been a significant change, but we still have a long way to go.

In Baltimore, and in other cities where you have neighborhoods with lots of abandoned houses, there is great potential to do production forestry, where you could grow trees that could be cut down and sold. When you convert vacant properties into forest patches, you create a larger, more contiguous forested landscape. Look at Detroit. What a phenomenal opportunity to start over! Do we need urban/community forests? You bet.

How far do you think we have come, in terms of shifting to a more eastern way of thinking about our urban forests which we discussed earlier?

Not as far as I’d hoped when I got into this business. It will come in fits and starts, and there will always be setbacks…like the recent election. However, there is a growing awareness that we can make cities the saviors in a warming climate through better design, better ideas about consumption and waste management, and better organization. This comes back to the great awakening you have in Buddhism, where you see yourself not as a parasite upon the larger environment, but part of it and a contributor to it.


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