Urban Forestry at a Crossroads: Development of an Emerging Profession

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Virginia Tech

While the practice of managing trees in and near human settlements has been around for most of human history, urban forestry has only been organizing as a discrete profession since the mid-1960s. As a relatively new profession, urban forestry lacks much of the structure and organization seen in other professions. This study will contrast urban forestry against other professions to identify strategies for improving recruitment into urban forestry, collaboration with other professions, and career opportunities.

Civil engineers, landscape architects, and urban planners (the allied professions) work together to plan and manage the urban environment, but urban foresters report difficulties integrating into or collaborating with this group diminishing their ability to influence urban forest management decisions. Allied professionals were surveyed on their usage of professional support mechanisms (e.g., certification) and their perception of professionalism in urban forestry. We found they are heavily invested in processes and functions that support practitioners and regulate their professions via certification, and the adoption of similar mechanisms by urban forestry would likely facilitate improved social capital.

Enrollment in urban forestry degree programs is too low and diversity of practitioners is unrepresentative of the urban areas served. Over 1,000 life and natural science-oriented college students at 18 U.S. universities were surveyed on their perceptions of urban forestry as a career. Aside from the wealthiest students displaying lower interest in urban forestry than others, we found no demographic characteristics (i.e., race, gender, socio-economic status, residential setting growing up) that would preclude urban forestry from recruiting a greater diversity of students. Poor awareness of urban forestry seems to be the greatest obstacle to improved recruitment outcomes.

Regularly probing the career opportunities of a profession for weaknesses and deficiencies is a tool of self-improvement commonly seen in other professions. We analyzed 151 job postings to assess typical salary, job duties, and requirements of education and certifications. We also interviewed 17 successful candidates to those positions to compare reality against written postings. A dearth of entry-level positions is likely deterring potential recruits. Employers were not posting 40% of the duties urban foresters were performing. Experience as an arborist was accepted in lieu of education as an urban forester in about half of positions, though a degree was required to reach the highest paying jobs.

Accreditation, Certification, Profession, Recruitment