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Baltimore Urban Wood Project seeks to transform "waste" wood

WASHINGTON, DC—Wood waste accounts for 10% of the annual waste material in the U.S. 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.

The Baltimore Wood Urban Wood Framework demonstrates the power of shared stewardship to address these missed opportunities. Since 2012, the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Forest Products Laboratory and State and Private Forestry staff have been partnering with state and municipal partners, private companies, and nonprofit and social enterprise organizations to develop a diversified regional wood economy that is scaleable, replicable and supports the U.S. wood industry.

Wood waste generally comes in two forms: fresh-cut wood and wood from deconstruction. Post-industrial cities throughout America generally have underutilized supplies of each. Baltimore is no exception, and the Urban Wood Framework seeks to transform these streams from waste to opportunity.

In Baltimore, the number of vacant and abandoned homes is officially estimated to be 16,000 vacant and abandoned buildings, although there are unofficial estimates suggesting the number is significantly higher. Many of these were built over a century ago using old-growth wood like virgin southern yellow pine, which is “extinct” in the modern sense. This wood is stronger, denser and more resistant to rot and termites, but today its biggest appeal is often aesthetic. Deconstruction creates six to eight times the number of jobs as demolition and provides an on-ramp to skilled employment for those facing employment barriers.

Fresh cut is the other component of the framework. In most communities, when a tree does or must come down due to a storm, decay, disease, or construction, it’s treated more or less as a waste product, not a potential asset. Developing an urban wood economy requires transforming these inputs into outputs of the highest and best use, and achieving a variety of incredible outcomes along the way.

Morgan Grove, Baltimore Field Station team lead, summarizes the effort this way: “Urban wood can be a means by which to reclaim livelihoods, economies and neighborhoods. It’s about developing circular economies to help us realize that waste is a verb, not a noun. It’s about approaches that create revenues to support proactive restoration of the urban tree canopy for the benefit of all a community’s residents—especially those in neighborhoods with low tree canopy cover that may be most vulnerable to the urban heat island and other effects of climate change.”

Seizing on the potential of viewing wood waste as part of a reuse process, the Forest Service partnered with Room & Board, a national retailer that creates handcrafted, American-made modern furniture with the vision of supporting national wood industries and local economies. The company launched a special line of furniture products using Baltimore-sourced wood, with much of the manufacturing carried out by small, local producers. 
Access to capital is another critical component to scaling and replicating the urban wood economy. In 2018, with funding from State & Private Forestry, the Forest Service entered a partnership with Quantified Ventures to explore how to scale and replicate the model. The partnership has generated publicly available reports on the use of sustainable financing to scale up both deconstruct and fresh-cut urban wood operations. Central to all efforts is creating as many living wage jobs as possible for those with barriers to employment.

Lauren Marshall, national program lead for Urban & Community Forestry, reflects, “Like so many efforts of this kind, success requires working across boundaries to produce innovative solutions. This project came together not only because of internal collaboration within the Forest Service, but because of the expansive, inclusive and collaborative thinking of all the partners.” 

Now that the framework for urban wood use has been established, the top priority is expanding the scope and scale of the program. To that end, the Forest Service hosts 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.

Sarah Hines, Urban Field Station network coordinator, notes, “The academy brings together diverse practitioners from various sectors, geographies and backgrounds to engage in mutual learning with the Forest Service, Humanim, city of Baltimore and each other. It is designed to facilitate two-way dialogue and uncover powerful lessons in how a networked, regional wood economy may be implemented in different communities, as well as how these networks may tier toward a national urban wood economy.”

To learn more, visit the Baltimore Urban 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?”