Adaptation Strategies and Approaches for Climate and Health

The Urban Forest Climate and Health Adaptation Menu can inform and assist communities in identifying possible ways to address anticipated current and future climate threats and impacts on human health.

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A changing climate presents both challenges and opportunities for urban forest management, and there is no single answer on how to best adapt to climate change. Adaptation strategies for urban forests will vary widely depending on the community and landscape context, including the geographic location, extent of development, ownership, and management goals. When developing urban forestry projects, solutions can be tailored to the magnitude of climate impacts, the inherent resilience of ecosystems, and the values and resources of local communities.

The Urban Forest Climate and Health Adaptation Menu provides a synthesis of nature-based solutions for responding to climate change and promoting human health and wellbeing. The menu provides information and ideas for optimizing the climate and human health outcomes of urban forestry projects to support professionals working at the intersection of climate, health, and urban forestry. The strategies presented in the menu are derived from a wide range of contemporary reports and peer-reviewed publications on climate change adaptation, urban forest management, carbon sequestration and storage, and human health response to landscapes. The menu is organized into a browsable list of strategies, approaches, and tactics.

Adaptation Strategies

The Urban Forest Climate and Health Adaptation Menu contains 9 broad strategies and more specific approaches for urban forests in temperate regions of North America. These strategies and approaches can assist urban forestry professionals and allied health professionals in considering a wide range of available options to determine what works best in a particular situation.

Strategy 1: Activate social systems for equitable climate adaptation, urban forest and human health outcomes. This strategy suggests how the goals and programs for urban forest ecological adaptation can fit into the broader policy- and decision-making processes of cities and communities. Urban trees deliver practical solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation as well as important co-benefits such as human health. The success of such efforts involves the dedicated activity of stakeholders, passionate champions, and social systems from the local to regional level, as well as acknowledging and addressing equity and environmental justice.

Strategy 2: Reduce the impact of human health threats and stressors using urban trees and forests. This strategy describes how the urban forest can be deployed to address multiple direct climate-related impacts in communities. Rising temperatures, extreme weather, more frequent and intense wildfires, and sea level rise are disruptive events leading to impacts such as heat-related illness and mortality, poor air quality, increased cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, and loss of homes to flooding. People also experience indirect health effects like psychological trauma and grieving. Nature-based adaptation approaches can be used to prevent and respond to these threats and health outcomes.

Strategy 3: Maintain or increase extent of urban forests and vegetative cover. This strategy addresses the foundational role of healthy tree and vegetative cover in urban areas to reduce climate impacts to human health and ecosystem function, while maintaining carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services. Increasing the extent of urban forests allows for enhanced climate adaptation and carbon mitigation benefits for all communities, and is also the primary opportunity for addressing environmental inequities in our cities. Activities within this strategy seek to sustain or enhance the long-term benefits of urban forests on human wellbeing and ecosystem function by minimizing loss and fragmentation of historically forested areas, maintaining current tree and forest cover, and increasing tree canopy.

Strategy 4: Sustain or restore fundamental ecological functions of urban ecosystems. This strategy emphasizes ecological processes and functions to preserve the capacity of systems to cope with changing and more variable climate conditions, which can result in changes in ecosystem hydrology, soil quality, and nutrient cycling. Challenges to maintaining natural ecosystem functions in urban areas include impermeable surfaces, air and water pollution, frequent human disturbance, and altered soil characteristics. Climate change can exacerbate these issues via extreme events and disturbances on ecosystems that may already be under stress or disrupted, which can impair the health and productivity of urban trees, reducing human health benefits and the carbon mitigation capacity of urban forests.

Strategy 5: Reduce the impact of physical and biological stressors on urban forests. Urban forests are experiencing increasing threats as a result of altered climate conditions and interactions with other environmental stressors. The stressors that affect urban forests vary widely based on the impacts of climate change in a particular region or area, as well as local factors that influence exposure and sensitivity to climate change. Although the nature and severity of climate risks will vary for individual cities, there are many threats in common across urban areas such as insect pests and pathogens and invasive plant species.

Strategy 6: Enhance taxonomic, functional, and structural diversity. This strategy addresses the value of diverse ecosystems in supporting the adaptive capacity of urban areas under changing conditions. Promoting species and structural diversity is an important investment in ecosystem resilience, especially given the uncertainty of future climates. Urban areas are highly susceptible to nonnative pests and pathogens, often exhibit high occurrence of invasive plant species, and also contain sites with challenging growing conditions. A diverse set of species, carefully selected to match the urban environment, will be more likely to maintain adequate forest cover, carbon mitigation, and other ecosystem services under a changing and increasingly variable climate.

Strategy 7. Alter urban ecosystems toward new and expected conditions. In the urban landscape, fostering species transitions is often less a question of whether to assist migration of species from other geographies and more about deciding when and where to incorporate species (such as nonnative taxa or regionally native species) into forests and plantings in different habitats and land uses to ensure that these areas are adapted to future climate conditions. Intentional consideration of the tolerances and traits of species will ideally help increase the climatic resilience of the urban landscape and urban forests could help facilitate the migration of species that will be favored under future climate to new habitats at or beyond the edges of their current range.

Strategy 8: Promote mental and social health in response to climate change. This strategy addresses the personal and community level of interactions of people with nearby nature, and how to build capacities to cope in the face of climate change. The health and wellbeing of individuals, households, and neighborhoods can be negatively affected by climate change and community-based actions to care for and steward ecosystems can foster social connections, acknowledge cultural diversity, and help create places that are meaningful and healing. Urban forestry plans can be informed by understanding socio-psychological reactions to climate stressors and risks, as well as the healing effects of nature, so that actions can effectively promote mental and social health in any community.

Strategy 9: Promote human health co-benefits in nature-based climate adaptation. This strategy encourages project decisions that support cultural ecosystem services and the positive land-use aspects of urban forestry. Urban forest projects that prioritize environmental services can be co-designed for human health and wellness co-benefits using a precision forestry outlook. Considering health promotion and protection when prioritizing nature-based adaptation can significantly increase the influence and value proposition of investment in urban forestry. Human health benefits are contingent on locating trees, forests, or parks near where people live or spend time. A health co-benefits approach optimizes ecosystem services, offers opportunities to engage with non-traditional public health and community partners, and makes a stronger business case for urban forestry policy and funding.

Download a summary of the menu 

Climate & Health Action Guide