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,, 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.”