Halifax's Urban Forest Master Plan

Following council motions in 2001 to develop a management plan for urban forests and research conducted by Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and Dalhousie University on HRM’s urban forest in 2007, the HRM developed a comprehensive Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP) in 2013, which simultaneously aims to address the impacts of rising temperatures, improve air and water quality concerns, moderate stormwater and flood damage, and offer improved community wellbeing. HRM’s UFMP is a comprehensive document that provides a detailed overview of the economic benefits provided by HRM’s urban forest; explains the overall design of the Plan and the methods and planning principles used in its development; articulates a UFMP management framework, which includes an inventory of urban forest values, objectives, indicators, and canopy targets linked to specific management and monitoring efforts; offers an in-depth analysis of current urban forest conditions, as well as existing and future challenges; and outlines a priority-based implementation strategy including actions, probable costs, management structure, and timelines. The UFMP builds climate change considerations directly into its framework under Operational Principle 1: Climate change and Operational Principle 2: Comprehensive Approach, which recognize that building resilience to climate change into the future urban forest is vital to its sustainability, and Guiding Principle 1: Adaptive Management, which is crucial in the face of the uncertainty of climate change.

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Understanding and Assessing Impacts

There are existing financial, legal, and natural barriers preventing improvements to the urban forest, and such challenges may become more severe as the climate, politics, and economy change. Addressing these challenges and forecasting their impacts will be a complex but necessary component of sustainable urban forest management (SUFM). The main impacts affecting HRM’s urban forest include impacts to aquatic systems and watershed health, climate change, conflicts with infrastructure, development, imperviousness, invasive species, lack of knowledge, ownership, peri-urban forests and the urban-rural gradient, redevelopment, and species and age-class diversity. Protecting the health and integrity of urban watersheds constantly intertwines with the management of the urban forest. Perhaps the most critical relationship is the role of forested riverbank (riparian) buffer zones in protecting aquatic systems. Forested riparian buffers regulate flooding, reduce the impacts of sedimentation, erosion, and nutrient loading on watercourses, regulate the temperature of adjacent watercourses, and provide important wildlife habitat.

Climate change is a major threat to HRM’s urban forest and urban forests around the world, and is a key source of uncertainty in urban forest management. Potential climate change impacts include more frequent and severe storms and hurricanes, drier and hotter growing seasons (a stressor for urban trees), more invasive pests, and warmer winters with a higher occurrence of damaging freeze-thaw cycles. Moreover, the warming climate is changing the range of tree species, which is shifting northward (and higher in altitude in some places). This will influence the types of trees that can survive in HRM. The two principal concepts related to managing a resource in a changing climate are mitigation and adaptation. Adaptation refers to management actions that reduce the vulnerability of systems to the changing climate by adapting the system to anticipated future conditions and likely impacts. Adaptation is much more important for reducing the threat of climate change to the urban forest than mitigation.

Identifying Actions

The HRM UFMP considers the urban forest on a neighbourhood scale, through a new and innovative values-based approach. The basis of the HRM UFMP was created through collaborative development of UFMP “VOITs” (urban forest Values, Objectives, Indicators, and Targets) at a series of community engagement events held during the summer of 2010. Another vital element of urban forest planning is a detailed understanding of the urban forest’s current condition—including apparent challenges and opportunities for management—and a historical context of how the forest was shaped. This was done through a rigorous analysis of current conditions, as part of the neighbourhood approach to urban forest management in the UFMP.

HRM implemented a community engagement program in July-August, 2010, as part of the initial development of the UFMP. The program’s primary purposes were information sharing and consultation on the identified urban forest values and VOITs. Community feedback from the consultations was used to inform the draft UFMP. Following the publication of the Draft UFMP in April, 2012, HRM conducted a community engagement program in May-July, 2012. The program’s primary purposes were to determine the relative priority of the themes and the associated actions to be implemented.

The neighbourhood approach was developed specifically for the HRM UFMP and is embedded throughout the plan. It came about when UFMP researchers noted significant differences among canopy cover percentages in several communities due to unique historical impacts and pre-existing conditions such as soil quality, topography, and climate. Classification and digitization of the neighbourhoods into the working UFMP Geographical Information System database was followed by a rigorous analysis of neighbourhood-scale urban forest conditions, management challenges, and opportunities for improvement. The analysis incorporated several sources of data and information, including “UFORE” which stands for “Urban Forest Effects” and refers to a computer-based model that calculates the structure, environmental effects and values of urban forests.


Implementation of the UFMP is a strategic and ongoing adaptive management process involving continuous monitoring, research, and consistent re-evaluation. The actions required for implementation are based on a range of assessments of HRM’s current urban forest challenges and opportunities, forest inventory, and urban forest policy research detailed throughout the Plan. The need for institutional flexibility over time to contend with future uncertainty around climate change, development patterns, and shifting values among the population is incorporated into the UFMP under the overarching principle of adaptive management to ensure that management reflects the ever-changing conditions of the HRM urban forest and values of its citizens.

While all UMFP actions are significant, their timing has been prioritized with the assistance of HRM citizens. Four public workshops were conducted during May and June, 2012, to seek community input on how to most effectively implement the actions of the UFMP and how to prioritize these actions. At these sessions, three main themes were discussed: 1. trees in the public realm; 2. trees in the private realm; and 3. land use policies and by-laws. More than 100 citizens took part in the workshops and provided feedback through a prioritization exercise and comment sheets. The workshops were attended by local residents and HRM Councillors, as well as representatives from the development industry, institutional landowners, environmental groups, HRM advisory committees, utility companies, and government agencies. The following public priorities (shown in order of importance) have therefore been incorporated in the implementation strategy: 1. Increase funding, plant more trees on HRM land and improve urban forest maintenance. 2. Adopt new regulations and standards to conserve urban forest canopy cover. 3. Promote citizen urban forest stewardship and develop educational programs. Actions corresponding to these priorities have been implemented in the initial 5-year timeframe of the Plan.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

To manage HRM’s urban forest sustainably, the UFMP study team adapted the Value, Objective, Indicator and Target (VOIT) conceptual framework for sustainable forest management (SFM) that was first developed by the Canadian Standards Association. The VOITs presented in the plan describe the urban forest values that must be satisfied in the management HRM’s urban forest. These values have been extended into objectives, indicators, and targets where possible, so that they can be translated into actions that can be monitored for effectiveness. For several of the urban forest values identified in the plan during development, it was not yet possible to identify feasible indicators and translate objectives into targets. These values and objectives are listed and associated with actions, but are not yet part of the monitoring agenda. With time, researchers and planners will develop appropriate indicators and targets so that the full suite of VOITs can be included in the monitoring program. The VOITs are segregated into ecological, social, and economic categories (see Table 5.1 for an example of ecological VOITs).

This plan describes a vision of sustainable urban forest management in HRM over the short and long terms. Successful implementation demands attention to timelines and allocation of appropriate resources and responsibilities for carrying out the prescribed actions. Monitoring is essential to understanding the impact and effectiveness of management actions as they are implemented. Partnership approaches, where HRM leads the process but engages the resources of research-oriented organizations and citizens, will be pivotal in undertaking effective and efficient monitoring. Because future resource availability and future structure and organization of HRM and other stakeholder organizations are uncertain and variable, implementation planning focuses on the short term. Even then, with implementation schedules set for several years or even a decade, they may be invalidated by such events as environmental calamities (e.g., hurricanes) or changed development plans. Notwithstanding such events that may necessitate contingency planning as soon as they occur, UFMP implementation is designed according to annual, five-year, and decadal stages.

Table 5.1: Ecological VOITs for Halifax's Urban Forest Master Plan

Ecological values, objectives, indicators, and targets for the HRM UFMP

Image of a sustainable urban rainwater management project in the City of Vancouver. The schematic includes incorporation of greenscaping as a way of not only beautifying the streetscape, but also to provide functional purposes such as rainwater management and small areas of habitat refugia. The image shows the integration of sustainable design with climate adaptation actions. Specific foci are on the inclusion of more city street trees, native plants, areas for pollinators, rain gardens, and the creation of common spaces for gathering.

Next Steps

The UFMP planning process resulted in 32 priority actions to be implemented within the initial five-year timeframe of the Plan. The priority actions fall within the following categories: 1. Neighbourhood Treatment (NT) (Priority 1); 2. Maintenance (Priority 1); Citizen Stewardship (Priority 3); Research and Monitoring (Required); and Regulation and Standards (Priority 2).