SB Brand-Led Culture Change 2024 - Last chance to save, final discount ends April 28th!

The Next Economy
SFI’s New Standard Aims to Bring Holistic Protection to Urban Forests

The sustainability non-profit is attempting to scale the first widely accepted certification standard for urban and community forestry.

According to the US Forest Service, there are more than 140 million acres of forest situated within “urban” areas across the country. That’s a lot of trees maintained and nurtured under a mix of public and private entities that all have a different set of demands compared to the traditional ways we think about remote, park-like forests.

As Paul Johnson, VP of Urban and Community Forestry and Career Pathways at the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), told Sustainable Brands®, “Unless you live in one of the country’s ten largest communities, you probably don’t think you live in an ‘urban’ area; and that creates a challenge when it comes to both ‘urban’ and ‘community’ forestry.”

Johnson led a multi-year effort that culminated in the launch of SFI’s Urban and Community Forest Sustainability Standard (UCFSS) last summer. The new certification is a prime example of how the non-profit works with partners in both the US and Canada to protect the trees and plant life that enrich our most populated areas.

Although SFI has been challenged regarding its standards, the organization remains focused on working to achieve meaningful progress related to forest-focused collaboration. Johnson explains that the new standard went through a rigorous, community-based conception process with a range of partial or full certification opportunities.

“Our task group had a strong goal on making this as accessible as possible,” he says.

The UCFSS details 16 objectives and four thematic certification options meant to encompass all of the challenges, opportunities and nuances of protecting and embracing urban forestry.

Greenery in populated areas can help filter the air, improve residents’ mental and physical health and more. However, rorest management within city boundaries takes on additional complexities compared to more traditional, rural wooded areas; urban forests must deal with ongoing climate challenges in addition to the tug-of-water with population density and the changing needs of suburban and inner-city communities.

A preservation effort loaded with potential benefits

The UCFSS was developed with guiding principles that support the notion that exposure to trees and greenery is good for overall health. Urban and community forests and trees are vital for community wellbeing and resilience and can help support broader care and understanding of green infrastructure.

Johnson explains that while SFI was updating other forest-management standards, a big question came up around how urban and community forests are maintained. SFI then created a task force, which put out a survey that returned 600 responses and thus began the journey towards creating the UCFSS.

SFI collaborated with groups including International Society of Arboriculture, Arbor Day Foundation, American Forests, Tree Canada and the Urban and Community Forestry Society to bring the standard to life in a way that would work for urban areas across both the US and Canada. Johnson adds that the two countries share similarities in urban forest programming, which helped in creating an overarching framework.

Access and opportunity for all

“This was intentionally designed so that anyone can use it — with no minimum acreage, hectare or stem requirement,” Johnson says.

The UCFSS has thematic certifications and a full lineup of objectives so that interested organizations can figure out which pathway works best for them.

Groups can either partially certify in one of the four thematic areas, or work towards a full UCFSS certification. There are a handful of certification bodies that an organization would work with to achieve either and applications are just opening up for 2024.

Johnson notes that as much as 80 percent of urban and community forests are privately owned; so, it was paramount that the UCFSS could be used by anyone, and for a variety of purposes.

For example, if an organization is primarily focused on combating climate change, it could choose to focus on thematic option two (Environmental and Conservation Leadership) or three (Climate and Disaster Resilience). That’s not an exhaustive list; but it shows the range and variety of utilizing the standard to push an organization’s own goals forward.

“We ran eight pilot assessments and did lots of pre-launch work to understand potential impact,” Johnson says.

While SFI will continue to make updates and adjustments to the Standard, Johnson envisions it as something new that organizations can regularly highlight within the context of an ESG or sustainability report. He adds there are “several” organizations already working through at least a portion of the certification program; and SFI aims to have hundreds of certificates awarded within five years.