Forest ethnography: An approach to study the environmental history and political ecology of urban forests


A landscape succession paradigm has shaped much of our understanding about the processes of forest emergence and transformation in the United States. Drawing heavily from theory and method in environmental history, this paradigm has focused attention on the role of landscape-scale shifts in land use and land cover in the production of forests. The geography of cities is patchy, dynamic and heterogeneous, with change and differences occurring at much smaller scales (e.g. Jacobs 1961; Clay 1973) compared to coarse scale of stand replacing successions affecting rural forests (Grove et al. Ecosyst Health and Sustain 2(9):e01239, 2016; Pickett et al. Urban Ecosyst 20(1):1–14, 2017). Therefore, trying to understand how urban forests came to be, as well as what they are, requires a research approach that is specific to the land use dynamics of cities and attentive to the social life of urban forests. In response to this methodological gap, this paper describes a research approach called “forest ethnography,” which we are piloting in Baltimore, Maryland as part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES), one of the National Science Foundation's urban Long-term Ecological Research Programs (LTER). As we describe, we propose that an urban forest ethnography approach can contribute to our understanding of both forest environmental history and urban political ecology.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Laura A. Ogden
Carissa Aoki
Nancy Falxa Sonti
Steward T.A. Pickett, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Miriam Avins
Katie Lautar
John Lagrosa
Urban Ecosystems