In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, Texas Christian University environmental geography professor Ashley Coles digs into her role in a new five-year study examining how technology influences the decisions urban foresters make about where and how to preserve trees. 

The study will focus on three cities – Denton; Cleveland, Ohio; and Eugene, Oregon. However, researchers will also survey 27 other cities to compare how public officials use analysis tools like i-Tree, a tool based on government tree data, to manage urban forests. Fort Worth is among the cities under consideration for that portion of the project, which is funded by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant. 

Coles is part of a team of researchers, led by University of North Texas professors Alexandra Ponette-González and Matthew Fry, who will examine how well technology involves residents in decision-making processes and accurately estimates air pollution removal. Researchers plan to host interactive exhibits showcasing residents’ priorities and how they align with city policies. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Haley Samsel: I wanted to discuss how you got into this project. What was your first time hearing about the i-Tree research?

Ashley Coles: My background is not in trees specifically, but my research focuses on ways to do urban planning and environmental management to promote well-being. Most of my research has been around hazards, but (the principal investigators) approached me with this project about the urban forest and these digital tools that are used to manage the urban forest, and asked if I wanted to be part of the project and I was like well, I don’t know anything about trees other than I like them. 

They said: “What we’re interested in is your experience with social science research, specifically trying to find out from the people who live in an area what kinds of preferences they have for how places are developed, what kinds of planning, what kinds of infrastructure or not would go in that that people would have certain kinds of preferences about or priorities related to that.” I’ve done (that) with hazards and water infrastructure, and that’s kind of what they were interested in. “We’ve got trees covered on our end, but we just need somebody who’s done focus group interviews and surveys and things like that.” So that’s my role in the project, is to be the person who asks the residents of the communities that we’re using as our case studies what kinds of tree-related priorities they would have. 

Samsel: It seems like a big focus of this project is how do decision-makers make decisions? And how do you put the right information in front of them? I’m wondering how you’re thinking about that in terms of the urban forest project, which I know is a bit outside of your comfort zone. 

Coles: Decision-making is the core of what I study, and a lot of times very well-intentioned decision-makers accidentally make decisions that make things worse for people who are supposed to be benefiting from an urban development project. For example, my dissertation research in Colombia focused on an urban redevelopment project that (failed) because it didn’t really understand how people lived in that space. It was actually going to cause more harm than benefit to the residents that were supposed to be the targeted beneficiaries of it.

Doing a more participatory approach in that realm has actually been quite a bit more successful than having a more top-down approach. It’s very similar in this area with urban trees. You don’t want to just go around and plant trees because trees are good. There’s a lot of reasons that trees are good. But you want to make sure that people want the trees in the first place, that you’re not putting any kind of burden on people. 

For example, maybe a certain species of trees are inexpensive and good at sequestering carbon, but it produces allergens. That’s not going to be a great thing to plant around people, necessarily. Maybe people would prefer trees that produce food that they could harvest or are low-maintenance or something like that … You want to make sure that there’s some balance in different kinds of park spaces or land uses for all different types of nature enjoyment. 

Downtown Fort Worth is seen from the Trinity River levee near West Seventh Street on April 24, 2021. (Rodger Mallison | Fort Worth Report)

Samsel: There is also the element of the technology which says: “This is where we think trees should go,” but perhaps there’s not community buy-in.

Coles: That’s another important angle of this, is that any kind of digital software or digital tool (has) an algorithm which doesn’t think by itself. By itself it doesn’t have any kind of bias in it, but somebody designed it and it’s entirely possible and likely that there are biases built into how it is created, how the results come out and then what kinds of decisions are made by it. 

We often will look at digital technologies as if they’re somehow neutral politically and objective, but a human being made them with limited types of information included in there and choices (like) option A or B or whatever it follows the particular steps, but those will lead down a particular path that may inadvertently cause harm to people or cause bias in terms of how it’s applied. 

We also want to look at some of the tools that are used to decide where to plant trees and how trees are being prioritized so that we can see if there’s any bias that’s resulting in inequitable distribution of tree-related amenities and how to build that more explicitly into the tools.

A lot of these tools are trying to calculate value, and that’s one of the nice things about them. You can actually count and quantify how much energy savings you have from planting trees next to buildings, and windbreak and shade resulting in so many dollars less of energy expenses being used. That’s very quantifiable. You can quantify how many tons of carbon dioxide your trees are removing from the atmosphere. You can quantify how much particulate matter they are filtering. 

It’s harder to quantify beauty and things like that, of course, but that’s also understood to have value. It’s hard to really account for how good of a habitat that different kinds of species would make, and so some of these other values might therefore get diminished just because there’s not an easy way to quantify them. And so you can end up starting to prioritize things that are easily quantifiable over values that are not easily quantifiable, which can lead to outcomes that aren’t necessarily desirable.

Samsel: I know this project is nationwide, but one of the key focuses is the North Texas area. I was wondering why you thought this is a good study area, because I know the growth in North Texas has just been exploding. There’s a common theme among a lot of residents that “we need to preserve the trees.” 

Coles: Definitely, the growth is an issue and obviously a lot of trees are being cut down to make way for more highways and buildings. The other reason that North Texas is a great place to do a lot of these case studies is that we do have several cities in this region that have an urban forester and have municipal codes (with) specific ordinances that are specific to trees. Fort Worth has one. We have Tree City USA locations as well that we’re focusing on. We know Dallas is starting to try to figure out a way to get trees to its residents. There’s a lot going on in the area of urban forestry in this region as well.

That makes it an exciting place to do the study because we can see it in action. We’re actually planning to interview a lot of the urban forestry officials or the companies that do some of these tasks that maybe get contracted out to see how they approach it and to what extent do they incorporate things, like justice and equity in terms of access to these things and to what extent is it built into the code. 

Having a region like the Metroplex that has cities of different sizes working with different kinds of budgets, with different kinds of priorities and different kinds of policies and ordinances, is going to make for some interesting comparisons because they’re all in the same place. 

The Lake Worth Indian Marker, located at Arrow S Park, is one of more than 50 heritage trees that the city of Fort Worth recognizes. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Samsel: Fort Worth is in the midst of developing an urban forestry master plan, and there’s also a tree farm that distributes trees to people. But I don’t really think most people understand how these decisions are made at all. 

Coles: Exactly, and that’s part of why we are interested in this kind of project, too, is because it really should be an iterative process between decision-makers and the residents. One of the things that we’re doing in our project is not only just asking people what they want and then taking that information back to those decision-makers, but we’re also going to have a public display – an interactive exhibit of our results (saying): “We asked residents what kinds of trees they wanted and where and here’s what they say,” and have the information displayed somewhere and allow people to make comments on that too and to kind of put that into practice. 

This should be a process that’s ongoing. It’s not just a one-time thing and then we’re going to have this one tree program and never look at it again, but to think about how we maintain contact between officials in an area and the residents who live there so that it’s a good collaborative relationship so that you don’t end up with the trust issues or you don’t end up with certain neighborhoods getting left behind.

Samsel: What are you hoping would be takeaways for the average Joe who is not an expert on I-Tree or tree modeling? What do you hope this project will give people insight on?

Coles: The thread that runs through all my research is that people should have some kind of voice in decisions that are made about where they live, because it is going to affect them directly or indirectly. Building the types of procedures and blueprints for what that can look like and how that could be successful is going to be really key. This should be beyond just trees. This should be how we manage hazards. 

I want this to be used for trees, but I want this to go beyond this as well. And I think it’d be also important to think about this with respect to digital tools. There’s a lot of really great innovations in technology to make calculations simpler, to make managing things a little bit easier in different ways, but I do want to make sure that we’re always keeping in mind that different kinds of biases can be built into the system accidentally, not because people are racist or anything like that, but the way that things are coded can inadvertently produce bias. We need to be vigilant and make sure that we’re paying attention to that so that if it starts to happen, we can make those corrections as we go.

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...