Research, urban forestry

Reflections on organizing the “Urban Forests & Political Ecologies” Conference of 2013



The Urban Forests & Political Ecologies (UFPE) Conference took place from April 18-20th, 2013, at the University of Toronto, 7 Hart House Circle, in the Great Hall.

The overall vision for the UFPE Conference was to showcase the important work and creativity of groups and individuals working in urban forestry issues across disciplines. The main objective was to increase communication and research collaboration and to create a focal point that brought together the knowledge, creativity and intellect of local and international participants and speakers. The idea for the conference was inspired from a combination of my synergetic experiences in urban forestry and graduate work conducted at both the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, and more recently, at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University.

In November 2011, two of my colleagues – Sadia Butt, a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, studying urban forestry, and Amalia Veneziano, Assistant to the Dean’s Office, also at the Faculty of Forestry – and I were sitting in a coffee shop discussing the lack of collaboration among various groups in integrating new content in urban forestry issues. From this came the first brainstorming and planning our conference: Urban Forests & Political Ecologies: Celebrating Transdisciplinarity.

The conference included speakers from the urban forest and political ecology fields that represented artists, academia, practitioners and students, all of which are at different stages of their careers. The panel topics, in their design, directly addressed the current issues of urban forest culture, identities and material realities, social and environmental justice, politics, education and the risks and vulnerabilities in the framework of growth and change. The conference panels examined, embraced and celebrated transdisciplinary work in urban forestry. These included: Historical Narratives; Urban Tree Cultures: Identities and Perspectives; Social Inclusion in the Urban Forest: Scalar Injustices and Community Connections; From Government to Governance: Redefining Politics; Urban Ecology Education: Innovative Approaches; Adaptation and Vulnerability in the Urban Forest; Rouge Park: The Future of Canada’s Premier Urban Wilderness.

Opportunities for networking were integrated into each day of the conference, with poster sessions, an ice breaker, an art exhibit, an evening networking event and field tours to the Humber Arboretum & Centre for Urban Ecology and the Alternative Campus Tour at York University. These events allowed participants to engage in meaningful conversations and share diverse perspectives.

The inclusion of the art exhibit was inspired from when I had the opportunity to speak at the McMichael Art Gallery in March, 2012. The Art History Department of York University was having a student symposium entitled, “New Growth: Dialogues on the Tree,” in conjunction with the gallery’s art exhibit. Mr. Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s work was being showcased and I was one of few speakers who addressed actual tree places such as arboreta, rather than historical and contemporary representations of the tree in art and architecture. I quickly discovered that these insights were very new and generated a lot of excitement, so I wanted to widen and strengthen this with my fellow urban forestry professionals. Overall, our hope was that the UFPE Conference would influence and result in beneficial returns over time in not only areas of policy for urban forestry, but also in cultural and social introspection.

It became clear to me in August 2012, after engaging one of our keynotes for the UFPE Conference, and then having an extensive conversation with our organizing committee, that the nature of our conference was, in its own way, evolving into a wild thing. The conversations that we wanted to inspire with such a conference invoked a sense of anticipation; the kind that brings you to the edge of your seat or keeps you up at 2 a.m. debating whether to get out of bed and turn on your computer. And yet, it occurred to me through these exchanges that we might have to engage some of our own speakers in the language of urban forestry and others in the language of political ecology; some being familiar with both, but not inclusively. This was not to be a conference about terminology or definitions of urban forestry or even celebrating value; this conference was intended to problematize the very notion of language and constructs – that’s what we had hoped for. We loved the conference we were designing. A conference that we, ourselves, would want to attend to learn new things, to inspire new ideas and wrestle with unfamiliar truths.

Organizing this event was a unique experience because we were trying to bridge not just the content but the “feel” of an academic conference, a trade show and an art exhibit. Details, like the trees, donated by Trees Ontario for the centre pieces, mattered to us. Several months in and we were drawing up the panels, designing, organizing weekly meetings and strategic communications with speakers and potential sponsors. One of the most challenging aspects of this process was strategically managing activities at appropriate times. Timing communications and promotions and media probes was key in effectively marketing this event.

Since transdisciplinarity was the theme of the conference, it was paramount to engage various disciplines and explore their debates. Thus, it seemed intuitive that we integrate our professional networks and partners by strategically connecting forces. We were confident from the beginning that people would be interested. Our confidence was validated when each keynote speaker we approached shared our enthusiasm and agreed to participate. At one point some of our own committee members expressed surprise that all international speakers had confirmed their participation. As sponsors signed on, we felt a surge of optimism that this event would be a unique contribution to celebrate urban forestry. At the Canadian Urban Forest Conference in London (CUFC10, October 2012), Dr. Faisal Moola also confirmed his involvement and announced our event. We helped integrate the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Ontario Urban Forest Council by including their ceremonial tree planting. We asked the International Society of Arboriculture to offer Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for arborists to attend the conference.

One and half years later, after working tirelessly to realize this vision, we succeeded. Our goal was to bring together diverse interest groups to share insights about urban forestry through political ecology perspectives and celebrate existing and encourage future interdisciplinary work. The keynote speakers served to frame the talks theoretically and to contextualize the broader narratives of each panel. The panelists offered stories and cases, and threaded evocative personal narratives through their talks.

I was pleased that the interdisciplinary structure of the panels was well received by all delegates. It was a proud moment to have many of our mentors whom we respect and admire, commend us on a job “well done” and congratulate us on the visioning and execution of the conference. Years ago, a friend of mine said to me, “things taste better shared.” I never forgot that. And so my response to those who approached us and said, “Well done,” was “Well inspired!” – because without those inspirations, this event would not have materialized.

The first time I heard the term “urban forestry” was in 2003 from Dr. Andy Kenney, my MFC supervisor, and the first time I heard the term “political ecology” was in 2008, from Dr. L. Anders Sandberg, my PhD supervisor. Being at FES taught me to think critically and more creatively about my field of urban forestry, and the opportunity to meet many of the people whose writings I have read over the past several years was invaluable.

And so, my personal journey through the process of organizing this event allowed me to explore my passions and revisit my motivations for getting into the urban forestry field. Helping to design, strategize and operationalize this conference was an invaluable experience that also provided me with the opportunity to connect and collaborate with scholars, artists, practitioners and students from all over the world who care about urban forestry, effectively growing an international network of people to share knowledge. I am confident that many tendrils have grown from this event. Already some of us are speaking about crafting writers’ workshops and designing collaborative research projects.

But the work does not end here. In many ways, this is the beginning. As Dr. Roger Keil so eloquently put in his closing keynote address, we now need to digest the conference in our own disciplinary languages. Together, we all made the unlikely, likely. As organizers, Sadia and I were inspired by many of the participants in our work; and as a result we wanted to design a conference that we really wanted to attend, to stimulate dialogue between scholars, practitioners, students and artists. Our hope is that this becomes a model to empower our (inter)disciplines with opportunities to collaborate and celebrate; and so I hope we can have more of these gatherings in the future. If not, then I propose a new language for the interdisciplinarity that is currently growing.

On behalf of our Conference Organizing Committee, I want to thank all our participants for contributing to this exciting event. We received very positive feedback through the post-conference survey. I also want to thank our conference sponsors for making this event possible: I especially want to thank our main conference sponsor, TD Friends of the Environment for their generous support. Lastly, I want to thank our Conference Committee members, who spent many many hours organizing this event over the past year and a half as well as our volunteers and Hart House staff for their dedication to this unique event.