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Human and biophysical legacies shape contemporary urban forests: A literature synthesis


Hamil Pearsall
Theodore S. Eisenman
Tenley M. Conway
Robert T. Fahey
Shawn Landry
Jess Vogt
Adrina C. Bardekjian
John J. Battles
Mary L. Cadenasso
Cecil C. Konijnendijk van den Bosch
Meghan Avolio
Adam Berland
G. Darrel Jenerette
Sarah K. Mincey
Diane E. Pataki
Christina Staudhammer



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Northern Research Station


Urban Forestry & Urban Greening


Understanding how urban forests developed their current patterns of tree canopy cover, species composition, and diversity requires an appreciation of historical legacy effects. However, analyses of current urban forest characteristics are often limited to contemporary socioeconomic factors, overlooking the role of history. The institutions, human communities, and biophysical conditions of cities change over time, creating layers of legacies on the landscape, shifting urban forests through complex interactive processes and feedbacks. Urban green spaces and planted trees can persist long after their establishment, meaning that today’s mature canopy reflects conditions and decisions from many years prior. In this synthesis article, we discuss some of the major historical human and biophysical drivers and associated legacy effects expressed in present urban forest patterns, highlighting examples in the United States and Canada. The bioregional context – native biome, climate, topography, initial vegetation, and pre-urbanization land use – represents the initial conditions in which a city established and grew, and this context influences how legacy effects unfold. Human drivers of legacy effects can reflect specific historical periods: colonial histories related to the symbolism of certain species, and the urban parks and civic beautification movements. Other human drivers include phenomena that cut across time periods such as neighborhood urban form and socioeconomic change. Biophysical legacy effects include the consequences of past disturbances such as extreme weather events and pest and disease outbreaks. Urban tree professionals play a major role in many legacy effects by mediating the interactions and feedbacks between biophysical and human drivers. We emphasize the importance of historical perspectives to understand past drivers that have produced current urban forest patterns, and call for interdisciplinary and mixed methods research to unpack the mechanisms of long-term urban forest change at intra- and inter-city scales.


Roman, Lara A.; Pearsall, Hamil; Eisenman, Theodore S.; Conway, Tenley M.; Fahey, Robert T.; Landry, Shawn; Vogt, Jess; van Doorn, Natalie S.; Grove, J. Morgan; Locke, Dexter H.; Bardekjian, Adrina C.; Battles, John J.; Cadenasso, Mary L.; van den Bosch, Cecil C. Konijnendijk; Avolio, Meghan; Berland, Adam; Jenerette, G. Darrel; Mincey, Sarah K.; Pataki, Diane E.; Staudhammer, Christina. 2018. Human and biophysical legacies shape contemporary urban forests: A literature synthesis. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 31: 157-168.


Publication Notes

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  • This article was written and prepared by U.S. Government employees on official time, and is therefore in the public domain.