A Better City Conversations: Boston’s 20-Year Urban Forest Plan

Written by Isabella Gambill, Senior Policy Advisor on Climate, Energy, & Resilience

Earlier this spring, the Energy and Environment and Land Use and Development units co-hosted an A Better City Conversation on Boston’s anticipated 20-Year Urban Forest Plan. In this event, we heard from the City of Boston’s Parks & Recreation Department landscape architect Liza Meyer and urban planner Maggie Owens, two of the leads on the 20-Year Urban Forest Plan (UFP), to share an overview of the Plan and to discuss with members how to engage the business community in Plan implementation.

In a first for Boston, the 20-Year Urban Forest Plan seeks to establish a citywide strategy and framework for the equitable protection and expansion of urban tree canopy across the city, with a particular emphasis on tree canopy retention and expansion in environmental justice neighborhoods with disproportionately low tree canopy coverage. Through proactive care and preservation in a community-driven stakeholder process, the UFP offers a framework through which trees are prioritized and valued across all decision-making processes in Boston, with a strategy focused on intentional and equitable implementation rather than setting numerical benchmarks to quantify increasing coverage by a particular number or percentage of trees. The 20-Year Urban Forest Plan process sits within the Wu Administration’s broader Healthy Places: Planning for Heat, Trees, and Open Space Initiative, with the City pursuing a multi-plan approach to Boston’s planning and resilience work across the Heat Resilience Solutions for Boston plan, the Parcel Priority Plan, the Open Space and Recreation Plan, and the 20-Year Urban Forest Plan.

A Better City sits on the Community Advisory Board (CAB) for the UFP as a collaborating partner, and we have remained engaged with the City’s team on how to equitably protect and expand urban tree canopy on privately owned land, and how to encourage public-private partnerships and regional collaboration in UFP design, financing, and implementation. In addition to our role on the UFP CAB, ABC members also participated in a consultant-hosted Developer Focus Group, which provided a private space for real estate developers to share their expertise and concerns regarding UFP implementation. In particular, many concerns were raised around the unintended consequences of tree protection ordinances as potential policy interventions, which may unintentionally exacerbate barriers to affordable housing development. ABC’s Conversation on the UFP took place a couple of weeks after the consultant-hosted Developer Focus Group.


As we learned from Liza and Maggie’s presentation to A Better City’s members, having a healthy, robust, and equitably distributed urban tree canopy holds multiple co-benefits, including: helping to address extreme heat (especially for trees in clusters); reducing wind; providing better air quality through lower temperatures; increasing stormwater retention; reducing energy costs; providing urban wildlife habitat; and holding significant cultural value that impacts residents’ quality of life. While the City of Boston performed its first canopy analysis in 2014 and again in 2019, this 20-Year Urban Forest Plan builds on the City’s understanding of what it would take to promote equitable tree canopy distribution across neighborhoods within Boston. In particular, the UFP explores opportunities to make tree canopy coverage more visible and successful across streets, plazas, yards, parks, cemeteries, and institutional campuses, as a few examples. 

Although the UFP does include strategies for city agencies to pursue in protecting and expanding urban tree canopy coverage on public land across Boston, it is important to note that over 60% of Boston’s tree canopy sits on privately owned land. Additionally, despite the majority of urban tree canopy sitting on private land, the City holds little to no data on the status of trees on private land in Boston, with significant gaps in solutions for protecting and expanding trees on private land. In addition to a lack of data and collaboration with the City on tree protection by developers, there are varying perceptions on the role of policy in encouraging tree protection throughout the development process, with many real estate developers asserting that developers are already taking the steps necessary to consider urban tree canopy in their decision-making, without needing to be penalized by additional tree protection policies. Finally, the UFP highlights the inequitable patchwork of existing urban trees across neighborhoods in Boston, with some neighborhoods having as little as about 5% of tree canopy coverage, and wealthier, more resourced neighborhoods having upwards of 50% coverage. Throughout the UFP design and implementation, tree planting prioritization will focus on areas with: less than 10% existing tree canopy coverage, areas with environmental justice populations, in places with the longest duration of heat event hours, in areas that were redlined as “Class D” or hazardous in racist lending policies, and in areas that already have the required sidewalk width to support street trees. The final UFP is anticipated to be published in summer 2022.


During the Q+A session, ABC members and staff were very interested to learn about how to leverage the private sector, business community, and developers in the implementation of the UFP and in promoting tree canopy solutions. To help highlight opportunities for tree protection and canopy expansion on privately owned land, the private sector may help with providing data on canopy change analysis on private land, as well as providing best practice examples of how developers and private landowners are prioritizing tree canopy in their projects. Additionally, members emphasized the importance of providing “carrots” or incentives for tree canopy protection in addition to the penalties or “stick” approach of policies like tree protection ordinances. Especially since citywide tree canopy coverage has remained relatively constant over recent years, it will be important to communicate what the UFP’s goals should be on privately owned land, and what the role of developers could be in scaling up canopy expansion.


When ABC members asked about next steps and how to become more involved in the finalization of the UFP, Liza and Maggie encouraged members to engage with City Councilors Arroyo and Braedon on possible amendments to proposed tree protection ordinance language put forth to Boston City Council last year (the tree protection ordinance process in City Council is wholly separate from the City’s UFP process). Additionally, once the UFP is finalized this summer, the City looks forward to continued conversations around how to leverage the business community in Plan implementation.

The slides from our UFP ABC conversation may be found here and the recording of our event may be found here. For any questions on ABC’s work within the 20-Year Urban Forest Plan and/or to become more engaged with discussions around proposed tree protection ordinances, please contact Isabella Gambill.

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