VAWS - Arbor Assets: The ROI of Campus Urban Forests

November 1, 2018


Excellence: We enthusiastically deliver quality services to our customers while consistently seeking to improve those services through creativity and innovation.

Part of the Values at Work Series


The University of Texas at Austin’s extensive grounds are home to a vast array of tree canopies lumbering across the campus’ urban landscape, along with a variety of flora native to the sunny skies of the Southwest. From the towering branches of the massive Battle Oaks to the fruit-bearing orchard adjacent to Waller Creek, these trees bring a multitude of benefits to everyone in the university community. Yet when UT Austin’s arborists discuss the benefits stemming from our urban forest, their conversations sound almost more like something that would take place in a classroom for the McCombs School of Business. Terms like return on investment (“ROI”), “valuation,” “asset appreciation” and “green infrastructure” can be heard from the Landscape Services conference room in the Facilities Complex. That’s because the conversation among professional arborists at universities has evolved as urban forestry programs have evolved.

UT Austin's South Mall trees provide a canopy of shade for students.

Today’s Urban Forestry Programs

Urban forests, as defined by the U.S. Forest Service, “include urban parks, street trees, landscaped boulevards, gardens, river and coastal promenades, greenways, river corridors, wetlands, nature preserves, shelter belts of trees, and working trees at former industrial sites. Urban forests, through planned connections of green spaces, form the green infrastructure on which communities depend.” An urban forestry program also includes a focus on the proper care of trees, known in the field as arboriculture, and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is the primary resource for “the art and science of tree care.”

In recent years, these “planned connections of green spaces” have become more than landscaping. They are now considered part of a comprehensive asset valuation and management program in U.S. cities and universities. Previously, “trees and green spaces were always said to have ‘intrinsic’ value, but never really had monetary values associated with them,” explains Jim Carse, manager of UT Austin’s Landscape Services, “or in rare cases they have been treated as public infrastructure, such as roads and utilities.”

Who helped bring about the change in the dialog? Carse says there are multiple sources. “The first I remember hearing of this paradigm shift was from projects like CITYgreen from American Forests, and the U.S. Forest Services’ UFORE (the precursor to iTree). The basis for these programs was the idea that by completing an inventory of your tree assets and utilizing a geographic information system (GIS), you could assess the impact trees have on the environment—specifically in the urban cores where they really make an impact on water quality, erosion control, heating and cooling benefits and carbon storage.”

UT Austin arborists celebrating National Arbor Day on campus and 10 consecutive years with Tree Campus USA designation

Other significant players with a role in the shift include the arborists. These practitioners, who are responsible for managing the urban forests, are an increasingly substantial force as they are becoming more knowledgeable about the impact of trees and view them as a valued natural resource. According to the ISA, the standard-bearer for arborists, “the tree care profession has experienced rapid growth over the past decade and there is a significant amount of knowledge required to perform at the highest level,” providing the impetus among arborists to obtain the ISA certification credentials. Another source for change comes from the people who live in the towns with urban forests. Their increased awareness and support of sustainability efforts in their communities includes appreciation of the many benefits of trees, evidenced by grassroots movements cropping up in neighborhoods across the country to keep trees intact as developers create new construction projects. Cities and groups across the country have also supported the importance of urban trees on many levels. Below are examples:

College campuses have shown their interest in managing trees as well. By engaging students, staff and faculty the Tree Campus USA program, delivered through the Arbor Day Foundation, strives to create a better understanding of the tree resources on college campuses across the country. UT Austin has held Tree Campus USA designation each year since the inception of the program in 2008. Along with the ISA, other major influencers include TREE Fund, which provides funding for scientific research, education programs and scholarships; private businesses who receive carbon offset credits; and the U.S. Forest Service, which developed the National Ten-Year Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan released in 2016. The plan was designed to “expand awareness of the benefits that our urban forests, including green infrastructure, provide to communities throughout the nation, and increase investments in these urban forest resources for the benefit of current and future generations.”

Locally, the City of Austin also produced an Urban Forest Plan and partnered with the U.S. Forest Service on CompassLive, an inventory and assessment project for the city’s tree canopy.

Impact of Trends on UT Austin’s Urban Forestry Program

How did this growing movement affect The University of Texas at Austin and its continuously developing Urban Forestry Program? “A university’s landscape is more than a pretty flower or the shade of a live oak tree,” asserts Carse. “It’s a functional asset that provides an immediate perspective as you enter campus. It forms the framework of the built environment. As stewards of its care, we go to great lengths to properly manage the different resources in the landscape, especially trees. We understand the many values trees provide to our campus community, which is why we decided to create a formal management program and assessment of these assets.”

Further, the growth of the UT Austin campus, both in student enrollment and new building construction (capital projects), proved to the university’s facilities management and campus planning staff that trees needed to be looked at with more importance; that they needed to be assessed from a safety perspective and as a campus asset. This shift has been reflected in master planning.

The 2014 Landscape Master Plan notes that the campus trees “are the essential feature of the campus landscape. Functionally, they provide shade; cleanse the air; intercept, conserve and store rainwater, secure the soil and moderate the campus climate. Visually, they provide naturalistic scenery to complement the dominant geometry of buildings. When compared to the collective size of the campus buildings, paths, and streets, campus trees account for only a fraction of the visual ‘content’ of the campus; however, the value of trees in defining the quality of the campus far exceeds their simple quantitative contribution.”

Similarly, the Sustainability Master Plan published in 2016 reinforces the Landscape Master Plan by emphasizing the functional value of the university’s landscape, including its trees: “Landscape encompasses the aesthetic and practical makeup of campus trees, vegetation, the shape of the land, a diversity of fauna and unique features such as Waller Creek. .

. . The continued health and ecological function of our landscape reflects our commitment to operational excellence.”

Tree relocation in 2014 conserves valued asset while making way for construction of UT’s Dell Medical School.

Landscape Services’ Urban Forestry program has worked to inventory the trees across campus, gaining appraisal data from its 2007 audit. However, no ecosystem benefit data was collected until the university undertook an inventory and assessment in 2016, which underscored the value of the trees as assets to the university. There were many questions to be answered. Do we know the comprehensive value of our trees? Since trees continue to grow, shouldn’t their assessed value appreciate over time? What benefits do we derive from these assets? Can we quantify these benefits, and if so, how? This is especially relevant when trees are removed during necessary and significant construction projects on campus. In other words, what is the impact to the university, in terms of cost, when it loses specific trees? Is this cost taken into consideration? And what standards are used to determine the decisions made in removing those trees? As stewards of the campus, Landscape Services realized that it had a responsibility to provide campus planners and decision makers with the information needed to make more informed decisions with regard to the campus urban forestry assets.

A comprehensive plan to address the missing information was devised. Carse spoke to and received approval and direction from Facilities Services (FS) senior leadership on actionable steps to capture the data in order to develop and support a conversation around trees that was green—not just in the environmental sense, but in terms of defined benefits and dollars. The steps included:

  1. Complete and document an inventory of the trees on the Main Campus that are at least three inches in diameter at breast height (DBH) and have one erect perennial stem. In the Waller Creek corridor, trees under eight inches DBH were not inventoried.
  2. Research the industry’s professional standards to identify, describe and assess the multiple benefits of UT’s urban forest and their corresponding dollar values.
  3. Recommend and implement management practices.
  4. Develop an online tool to document and better manage the tree inventory and assessments data and to make the information easier to share with stakeholders.
  5. Share knowledge with university faculty and students for academic purposes.
  6. Develop and document construction standards and specifications for the proper management of UT Austin’s urban forest.

UT Austin’s Tree Inventory and Assessment Action Plan Takes Root

Step 1 – Inventory the trees and analyze the data

The university commissioned an inventory of trees on the main campus in 2016. The inventory gathered information about each tree, including species, size, condition and geographic location in an electronic, GIS format. Davey Resource Group (DRG) conducted the inventory over a period of four months, then analyzed the data using i-Tree Streets. DRG reported results to the university in Urban Forest Resource Analysis, The University of Texas at Austin. The inventory identified 4,892 trees of over 100 different tree species across the main campus and noted that 109 acres of tree canopy cover 25 percent of the campus.