Urban Forestry at CNUCIndustry
By Manager of R+D Philip Chen
CNUC’s Division 30 is otherwise known as our research and development (R+D)department. As part of the D in R+D, we examine how we can leverage our assets to find growth opportunities within our industry and new markets. A natural step in our progression was expanding upon our primary skillset – arboriculture. Many of our staff have a background in forestry and all eventually gain arboriculture knowledge and the relevant certifications. You can’t draw much more of a direct link to the practice of arboriculture than urban forestry, which is the planting, maintenance, care and protection of individual trees and tree populations in urban settings. As a result of this revelation, CNUC’s D30 began our debut into Urban Forestry in 2017. We, however, did not achieve meaningful ingress into urban forestry until the summer of 2020. Throughout our journey so far, we have uncovered many things.
Barriers to Entry
In 2017, we began pursuing the urban forestry market and found it was easier said than done. As we reviewed requests for proposals (RFPs), we kept confronting hefty requirements for proof of experience. On RFPs that didn’t have such requirements, we faced the similar challenge of bidding against firms with extensive experience. It was a frustrating time. We continued to submit bids as often as possible, but each time we received notice that another firm was awarded. Each occurrence was the same story. Our proposal was great, and our pricing was reasonable, but we didn’t have the experience the other firms presented.
We decided to pivot to pursuing projects that were small enough that the large players in the market weren’t bidding and had some successes. We started with a small ash tree inventory and risk assessment for the City of Chattanooga in Tennessee, inspecting and documenting all ash trees in Chattanooga’s downtown and the Chattanooga Zoo. Next, a golf course in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Then at the Trees and Utilities Conference in 2019, we had a game changing conversation with a company called PlanIT Geo.
PlanIT Geo specializes in urban forestry software, tree canopy assessments using satellite imagery and creating management plans. They explained that cities often put out bids for a bundle of these services – this was their bread and butter. Their small team of arborists completed these services for smaller projects well, however, when it came to larger cities they were not well equipped to scale up. PlanIT Geo offered experience in urban forestry, software and services outside of CNUC’s scope. We on the other hand, have a large, distributed staff of arborists. It was a perfect fit and we formed a partnership. In our first few months together, we had some significant successes. First, a large tree inventory in Fremont, CA, followed by an inventory for Apple, Inc.
When we began large-scale tree inventory work, several contrasts with utility vegetation management (UVM) forestry became evident. First, in urban tree inventories, species identification is critical and the suite of species you may encounter is more wide reaching than in UVM work. Often, we encountered obscure species that were planted for their aesthetics, and our arborists had to dive deep into their college dendrology course memories or leverage reference materials for identification. Not only is a high quantity of species met, but smaller species which we can typically overlook in UVM applications. Generally, there is a lot of individual tree attention in urban forestry compared to UVM.
Often, we encountered obscure species that were planted for their aesthetics, and our arborists had to dive deep into their college dendrology course memories or leverage reference materials for identification.
Tree risk assessment is one aspect of UVM forestry in which we pay close attention to an individual specimen. Our experience in tree risk assessment was a decisive advantage in our urban forestry work. However, even in this familiar activity, we found contrasts. For example, in UVM, our target is almost always a static line when evaluating tree risk potential. In urban forestry, by comparison, you must consider hardscapes, structures, vehicles and pedestrians. Much more thought must be given to the likelihood of impact in tree risk equations: what is the frequency and duration of targets within the impact zone?
This leads me to some recent unforeseen challenges we all have faced and their impact on our tree inventory work. As we are all too aware, COVID-19 has made quite an impact. As with our normal operations, it caused logistical challenges for fieldwork. It also influenced tree risk assessments and the considerations around the likelihood of impact. It can be challenging to determine frequency and duration of pedestrians and cars when working in empty streets in an unfamiliar location. Additionally, with our assessments covering a year’s timeframe, how will COVID-19 impact those frequencies and durations for that. Were trees with a risk of failure in areas that were bustling with people pre-COVID now less of a concern as fewer people were near them less often?
The second environmental challenge we encountered was the California fires. All our tree inventory work this season was in the San Francisco Bay area. With fires burning in surrounding regions, we had significant impacts from smoke. On occasion the air quality index was at unhealthy levels, shutting down fieldwork for days at a time. For our Apple, Inc. project, photos were integral to our scope of work and the smoke prevented us from taking high-quality photos. For that reason, we had to return to trees we had already inventoried to retake photos on clear days. This was a substantial issue as all our pricing is on a per tree basis and we had little wiggle room for more than one mobilization.
We’ve learned a lot and leveraged our model of continuous improvement to adapt along the way. We have reached the end of our 2020 urban forestry field season with lessons learned, a lot more experience and a strategy to expand this service offering even further. When it comes to tree inventories, we have ambitious goals for this next year. With our new partnership, drive for excellence, insights from 2020 and our fantastic team, I feel confident we will exceed our expectations. I want to give kudos to Michael Johnson, Aaron Goodpasture and Bill Spencer for all the hard work they put in to get us where we are today. The three of them have continually impressed our partner PlanIT Geo, our clients and me, turning our goal of expanding into the urban forestry market into a reality.