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New £2.3m study to evaluate the social and cultural values of urban trees

A climate emergency has been declared by 74% of UK local authorities and many are responding to the issue by increasing their tree planting targets, as this will help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Symbolic, heritage, spiritual, social, and cultural values are placed on trees – as demonstrated in the recent Sheffield street trees protests – so it is important local authorities acknowledge and consider the impact trees have on public wellbeing when planning future treescapes and managing those that already exist.  

‘Branching Out’ is a new project led by Loughborough University that aims to develop new ways of mapping, predicting, and communicating the social and cultural values of trees so local authorities can make robust, evidence-based decisions around urban treescapes.

The three-year-long £2.32m study, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and in collaboration with Forest Research, the Open University, the University of York, and SEI (Stockholm Environment Institute) York, will evaluate the social and cultural values of urban trees across three cities: York, Cardiff, and Milton Keynes.

The research, which is being led by Loughborough University’s Mike Wilson, Professor of Drama and Director of the Storytelling Academy in the School of Design and Creative Arts, brings together expertise from a wide range of disciplines – from environmental and social sciences, to arts and humanities, to urban planning and design.

The study comprises three broad approaches that aim to achieve a variety of goals:

  1. Co-production: this approach will involve working with citizens and stakeholders to develop a holistic value framework
  2. Storytelling: the researchers will use the power of storytelling to capture narrative accounts of meaning and value of the past, present, and future
  3. Mapping: this approach will be used to link biological and physical (‘biophysical’) features of trees with social and cultural values. The team’s approach will map both values that are generalisable and those that are specific to a location.

The researchers will also develop detailed maps of the focal cities’ urban treescapes by combining citizen science, urban tree observatories, hyperspectral remote sensing, historic mapping, and amenity modelling resulting in Europe's largest, most robust urban tree dataset. The established citizen science platform, www.treezilla.org, will be used to map changes in urban treescapes.  

The dataset will be accompanied by descriptors of social and cultural values - meaning it can be used to recreate similar datasets across other urban areas using freely available satellite data.

Of the importance of the research, Professor Wilson said: “Branching Out is a very exciting project to be part of.

“Not only do we have the opportunity to make a real difference to the way that social and cultural values of trees are properly considered, leading to fully rounded and informed planning and policy-making, but also to integrate our research in storytelling with environmental and social science expertise, as a way of bringing additional voices and experiences into the public discourse around the future of our urban treescapes.

“It is a unique opportunity to bring together knowledge from across a wide range of disciplines and develop new ways of addressing these important issues.”

Dr Philip Wheeler, Senior Lecturer at the Open University (OU)’s School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, added: “It’s a huge win to have obtained this amount of funding. People value trees for a whole range of reasons and with this support for the ‘Branching Out’ project we can scientifically increase our understanding of the value people place on urban trees.

“At the OU we have been helping people get a better understanding of the trees around them through the Treezilla citizen science project. This funding is an incredibly exciting prospect for all of us involved in urban trees and citizen science.” 

Notes for editors

Press release reference number:

About UK Research and Innovation  

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, with a budget of around £8bn. It is composed of seven disciplinary research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. We operate across the whole country and work with our many partners in higher education, research organisations businesses, government, and charities. Our vision is for an outstanding research and innovation system in the UK that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and to benefit, enriching lives locally, nationally and internationally. Our mission is to convene, catalyse and invest in close collaboration with others to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good.  
www.ukri.org  

Loughborough University

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

About The Open University

The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than two million students worldwide and has over 175,000 current students, including more than 7,000 overseas.

Over 76% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and three out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

In the latest assessment exercise for university research (Research Excellence Framework, 2014), nearly three quarters (72%) of OU research was assessed as 4 or 3 star – the highest ratings available, awarded to research that is world-leading or internationally excellent. The OU is unique among UK universities having both an access mission and demonstrating research excellence.

Regarded as the UK’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast ‘open content portfolio’ includes free study units, as well as games, videos and academic articles, which have reached over 36 million people.

About Treezilla

Treezilla: the monster map of trees (www.treezilla.org ) is a citizen science platform aimed at encouraging members of the public, local authorities, business, local groups and other organisations to collaborate in mapping, measuring and monitoring trees across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Treezilla calculates ecosystem services, i.e. the benefits that nature provides to people (see how: https://treezilla.org/faqs).

Launched in 2013, Treezilla is a collaboration between The Open University, Forest Research and Treeconomics and has so far has mapped over 1 million trees.

For further information please visit The Open University and Treezilla

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