Post-industrial cities face a suite of interconnected problems. Reusing urban wood can be viewed as a systems solution to a complex problem – a means by which to begin to renew and revitalize lives and communities as well.
Among some of society’s most complex challenges – unemployment, ecological degradation, and more – it’s understandable if you didn’t realize that wood waste is also problem. Yet the problem of urban wood waste can also address some of these societal challenges.
Wood accounts for more than 10% of the annual waste material in the U.S. In fact, in some years more tree and woody residue was generated from urban areas than was harvested from National Forests. And this waste creates costs – for municipalities, businesses, and landfills that pay for its hauling and disposal.
To date, the biggest losses associated with urban wood accrue in the form of missed opportunities. By rethinking the use and disposal of urban wood, cities and businesses can generate profits, reduce costs, and develop new revenue streams. But such efforts require multi-sector collaboration, innovation, and trust.
Viewed as part of a complex system, urban wood can become a conduit for tackling a complex landscape of social, environmental, and economic problems. In Baltimore as in many other cities, this complex landscape of problems includes: substantial unemployment and poverty; thousands of vacant and abandoned buildings that create blight, depress neighborhood values and safety, and serve as hotspots for illegal activity, trash accumulation, and rodent problems; and low tree canopy cover in some of the most challenged neighborhoods, compounding issues related to the urban heat island, stormwater runoff, and other public health issues.
Wood waste generally comes in two forms: fresh-cut wood—which consists of felled or fallen trees that had been growing in a community; and wood from deconstruction—which can be reclaimed from abandoned homes and buildings.
Diverting wood from the waste stream preserves valuable material, reduces landfill crowding, and creates hyper-local and charismatic materials for architectural and furniture design and more.
Many cities have unrecognized treasure in the form of old growth timber that is currently locked up in vacant, abandoned, and crumbling homes and buildings. In Baltimore alone, there are officially 16,000 vacant and abandoned buildings, but unofficial estimates suggest this number could be as high as 40,000.
Many of these buildings were built over a century ago using virgin- or second-growth wood of native eastern deciduous forests with trees that were often 300-500 years old when they were cut down.
In Baltimore, virgin southern yellow pine was used to build the joists and flooring in the majority of homes. This old-growth wood is “extinct” in the modern sense, as fewer than 0.01% of old growth southern pine forests still exist, and those that do will not be harvested for timber. Wood from these trees is of a size and quality that is not possible today, when trees are grown faster and on shorter rotations. It is denser, stronger, and more resistant to rot and termites – but primarily, it is gorgeous and rare.
Yet cities have been wasting this resource – demolishing homes and sending tons of rubble to the landfill. All the while, too many neighborhood residents sit by idly, unable to find employment, watching as these 2-3 crew demolition operations proceed.
Developing an Urban Wood Economy requires recognizing that the highest and best use of fresh cut wood can generate greater value at the end of a tree’s lifespan, creating cradle-to-cradle opportunities for re-investment in urban forestry.
Some of the facts are amazing. For instance, deconstruction can create 6-8 times more jobs than demolition of an old house. Deconstruction and some urban wood sort yard jobs are well-suited to those with barriers to employment, like low education or previous incarceration. And employing people with barriers to employment, and providing an on-ramp to a career, can create positive feedback loops in communities, reduce government costs, and increase government revenues.
The Baltimore Urban Wood Framework works with partners such as Humanim and the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks. The USDA Forest Service has developed a framework for urban wood utilization that can support development of urban wood economies. Expanding scale and scope is a top priority.
Baltimore has been the pilot city, but we seek to share, replicate, and refine the urban wood economy model in any other city with interest. To that end, we host an annual Urban Wood Academy, a multi-day experiential workshop designed to share best practices and lessons learned around building a networked, regional wood economy.
The Academy brings together diverse practitioners from various sectors, geographies, and backgrounds to engage in mutual learning with the Forest Service, Humanim, and City of Baltimore, and each other. The Academy is designed to facilitate two-way dialogue, uncovering powerful lessons in how a networked, regional wood economy may be implemented in different communities, and how these networks may tier toward a national urban wood economy.
Recognizing waste, as a verb, in all its many forms – resources, pollution, human potential – is central to any effort to repurpose urban wood.
It’s about so much more than wood. It’s about systems-level thinking and engaging systems-level actors across sectors. And like so many efforts to increase sustainability and resilience, successful efforts depend on working across boundaries – levels of government, sectors of the economy, seemingly disparate challenges – to produce innovative solutions. This kind of transformative approach leads to replicable, high-performance outcomes that improve lives, communities, and ecosystems.
For those interested in learning more, please visit the Baltimore Wood Project website and our sustainability teaching case, entitled “Reclaiming Wood, Lives, and Communities: How do we turn a waste stream into an asset that revitalizes cities?”