Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis: Urban Citizen Forest Protection

Urban Citizen Forest Protection

How can we empower individual caretaking of the urban forest?


SVA MFA Products of Design

Spring 2017

Experience Design


For the experience design lens of my thesis, I was inspired by two insights. First was Emma Marris’ redefinition of wild. She stresses the importance of expanding our definition of wildness to include street trees and dandelions in the parking lot.  We need to embrace wildness at home, as opposed to maintain this idea that we must go out of the city to find nature. We are human – we are part of nature, and so should be the places we live in. Second was from Vanessa Ventola at LES Ecology on how she hoped people knew they can take care of street trees. Often people assume they are private property and that one shouldn’t interfere.

Further, it is critical that we take care of these trees because trash and pet defecation lead to chemical imbalance and, if the soil becomes compacted, it prevents water and nutrients from reaching the roots.  If the trees die, so do we, as we can’t survive without their air filtration.  

So the goal of this experience was to empower individuals to embrace the street trees and to feel the urgency of this situation. These are living beings. Can we respond to their injuries and pains in a similar fashion to human emergencies? Part of creating this experience involved creating a conceptual organization called the Urban Citizen Forest Protection, that draws inspiration from First Response teams, EMS, and street medics. The experience was a training session for new recruits. 

Training begins with equipment distribution and overview. Trainers are donned with branded sweatshirts, gloves, and medical kits containing mulch, cultivators, plastic bags, and water. Trainees are provided “in-training” pinnies and gloves. Then training groups enter the phase called “prevention”. This is the performative section of the training and is just as much for the passersby on the street as it is for the trainees themselves. Trainees practice defensive blocks to protect trees from incoming trash and a solidarity chant that goes like this:

“We represent the city street trees. Keep your trash away from them please.”

Next trainers and trainees leave the base station and go out to help a tree in need. Once there, they learn how to greet the tree, how to assess vital signs, and how to deliver basic aid. The key vital signs to asses include: presence of trash, visible roots, compaction or water pooling, obstruction or constriction, and signs of pet defecation. Trash can cause pH imbalances in the soil which kills the living things there. Exposed roots leave trees more susceptible to damage and infection. If the soil is compacted, water cannot filter down into it and therefore the roots, earthworms, and microorganisms are without water and nutrients. If the tree becomes too big for its bed and steps are not taken to amend this, the roots will cease growth and the tree will die. Urine adds salts to the soil and feces causes too much nitrogen to be deposited into the soil. For most of these vital signs visual observation is enough to detect error, however in some cases scent or touch can be used for further analysis. With vital signs measured, trainers and trainees can begin the next phase of the training, delivering “basic aid.”

If there is trash, trainees can pick it up and put it in the bags brought by the trainers. If there are visible roots, trainees can cover them with mulch and soil. If there is compaction, it can be loosened gently with a cultivator. Obstruction and constriction needs to be just reported back to base as more advanced teams need to get involved to remove bricks or concrete (you need a tree work permit to act on these types of issues).  If urine scent is detected, trainees can add water to help neutralize the salts. And if feces is seen or detected, trainees can add mulch to help absorb excess nitrogen. 

This experience was designed for sustainability professionals and lovers of the outdoors and so invitations were distributed via Eventbrite, email, and with relevant Facebook groups such as NYC/NJ Green Action. UCFP also has an Instagram account (@ucfp_nyc) populated with images of trashed tree beds. 

The participants all seemed to be enthusiastic and excited to engage in the tree care. However there were several learnings and opportunities for improvement. First was that there should be a plan for tree care for each season. This way, in the case that it snows in mid-March on the day of the event, trainees can engage in the “winter” version instead. Additionally, participants indicated that they wished this were a longer session and they might have gotten more out of it if it wasn’t such a short time. Finally, there was desire for more tools to prevent pet waste. This is an uncomfortable situation to engage in, so there is opportunity for an additional take-away, perhaps some type of small printed cards, that trainees can give out to people they see polluting the trees.

This experience has many other potential next steps including the creation of a UCFP alerts app, continuing to populate the UCFP Instagram, and creating a webpage for online training guides. Since this event, I have also teamed up with the LES Ecology Center to help run two street tree care events in May 2017. Photos from these events are coming soon. Keep an eye out on the UCFP Instagram (@ucfp_nyc) for future events or training opportunities.