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Professor Alan Simson

Professor Alan Simson

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"The Emerging Role of Urban Forestry in the New European Urbanism" - Alan Simson

Human beings have had a long, deep cultural relationship with trees, woodlands and the landscape. This relationship transcends national cultures, and sits happily as an equal alongside our scientific, economic, ecological and spiritual relationships. Indeed, as W H Auden reminded us, ‘A culture is no better than its woods’. Thus trees have been a vital component of our cultural relationships with our landscapes since time began. There are those who believe however that, as Europe became a collection of urban communities – the UK officially becoming urban in 1851 - these links with trees became out-dated, as other issues became more pressing. They couldn’t be more wrong.

This lecture suggests that the concept of ‘urban forestry’ was born in the UK by the Quaker Industrialists of the Industrial Revolution, traces how the concept evolved, initially through the Garden City Movement, and illustrates how subsequently urban forestry has been developing a cannon of research – work that Leeds Beckett has been involved with – and how the concept has been making appreciable progress up the political agenda in Europe over recent years. This has been assisted by the fact that it has begun to develop an identifiable ‘European’ style, as opposed to practicing a version of the North American approach developed in the 1960’s.

This is significant, as Europe is in the process of undergoing profound change, change that originally was concerned with the unification of the continent and thus was essentially economically driven, but which now increasingly considers matters as diverse as the suspension of national borders and easier pan-continental travel. From a continent of competing countries, we are becoming a continent of competing regions and cities. One region’s gain can be another city’s loss and this is increasingly creating urban instability. This phenomenon is also mirrored in other parts of the developing world.

Although many European cities have reached the limits of conventional growth, they continue to expand. Thus the rules of the game are changing and this lecture will suggest that the conventional approaches to regulating urbanization are failing, as they are all too often seen as formulaic and unsustainable and thus are unable to attune to the increasingly unstable urban conditions. This lecture further suggests that, unlike the conventional approaches to urbanism, urban forestry is able to deal with these unstable conditions because it continually adapts and transforms and can accommodate a myriad of forces and initiatives and, as a result, move beyond the ‘green cosmetic’ to become an integral part of a new, more sustainable European urbanism.

The lecture illustrates with examples from my own urban forestry journey of exploration and research, and concludes with the suggestion that urban forestry is emerging as the prime catalyst for sustainable urbanism in Europe, on the basis that true wealth can only really be measured in terms of the well-being of people and the cultural sustainability of their environment.


Alan has been interested in trees and their relationship with people and place from an early age. Whilst still at school, he persuaded his father to plant a fastigiate Ginkgo biloba [Maidenhair Tree] in the family garden, believing – probably wrongly – that this would be the only one in North London. After leaving school, he considered a career in forestry and worked in the Forestry Section of Watford Borough Council where, by chance, he got involved with designing and planting a number of large trees in the High Street – trees that are still there! Subsequently he was advised by the Director of Parks not to go into forestry, but to become a landscape architect. He followed this advice, was offered a place at the then Leeds Polytechnic, and emerged with a distinction in landscape architecture.

Whilst at Leeds, he developed an interest in the Quaker Industrialists of the Industrial Revolution, in particular their belief in the quality of place for people, and he subsequently joined the landscape team in Telford New Town, which included the settlements of Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge, where the Industrial Revolution began. His interest in trees and how they could be used to create ‘place’ soon landed him the task of designing and running the Afforestation programme for Telford, something he did for over ten years, planting over six million trees in the process. Whilst at Telford, he also started research into yew trees, their ancient heritage and close connections to people and place, research that is still on-going.

After the New Town was completed, Alan and a few colleagues set up a private landscape bureau for a while, before he returned to Leeds to join the landscape staff team at Leeds Polytechnic. He was Course Leader for both the under-graduate and post-graduate programmes, but his aim was to eventually return to private practice. Events took a different course however, as his New Town urban forestry work triggered interest from future European colleagues, and thus the European urban forestry journey began, which is still continuing and developing.

He has been involved with a number of EU research projects on urban forestry, including COST Action E12 Urban Forests and Trees and NeighbourWoods, both of which he led on behalf of the UK. He is currently part of the UK Team on COST Action FP1204 GreenInUrbs and is a contributor to the joint Italian/Slovenian LIFE Plus EMoNFUr. He is a Member of the European Forum on Urban Forestry, lead UK member of ASEM.UF [Asian-European Meeting on Urban Forestry], chair of the White Rose Forest, a Director/Trustee of the Community Forest Trust and Concourse, the Leeds Architecture Centre and is on the Quality Places and Spaces Committee of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce. He travels extensively, both nationally and internationally, giving presentations and contributing to workshops / seminars on urban forestry / urban greening.

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