Educating Future Engineers about Cities and Trees

Urban Foresty South helps shape the future of urban design

Eric Kuehler discusses the value of natural resources in urban areas to graduate students at Georgia Tech in an advanced GIS class. Photo by Ramachandra Sivakumar.
Eric Kuehler discusses the value of natural resources in urban areas with graduate students at Georgia Tech in an advanced GIS class. Photo by Ramachandra Sivakumar.

According to the 2010 census, almost 81 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. As the U.S. loses more of its forests and natural resources to the expansion of urban areas, it is important to provide information about the benefits of trees, forests, and natural areas to city planners and the engineers who design our cities. Quantifying these environmental services can help these professionals better understand their value in urban areas.

On March 8, Eric Kuehler, technology transfer specialist with Urban Forestry South, a center of the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit,  gave a presentation about the benefits of urban forest systems and the environmental services that they provide to Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) graduate students in an advanced Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course as part of a partnership between Georgia Tech and the Forest Service.

The purpose of the presentation and hands-on exercise was to expose engineering students to the benefits of natural resources, encourage the use of natural systems in development and green infrastructure projects, and to introduce them to some of the Forest Service’s i-Tree tools as a means of quantifying environmental benefits. The semester-long course is taught by Ramachandra Sivakumar, a research engineer with the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning.

Sivakumar originally reached out to Urban Forestry South in 2012 as Georgia Tech was proposing a campus-wide tree inventory project. He explained that the Georgia Tech administration was interested in quantifying the benefits of their urban forest and he had heard about i-Tree from his campus arborist, who had met Kuehler at a conference the previous year where they discussed the suite of tools, the types of reports that could be generated from i-Tree, and the necessary inputs to run the tool. As a result, a partnership was created between Georgia Tech and Urban Forestry South to better inform future engineers about natural resources in urban development.

Since the completion of the campus inventory in 2012, Sivakumar has developed a method to constantly update the inventory database with newly planted trees, trees that have been removed from the landscape, and changes in tree sizes through GIS using the data model for GIS database management and i-Tree Eco. The updated inventory data can be easily formatted and run through the i-Tree software to report the environmental services that the trees on campus are providing whenever the information is needed. Sivakumar wanted to have this capability in order to maintain a living laboratory on Georgia Tech’s campus to assist researchers on campus in studying the effects of trees on development as well as providing an outdoor classroom for the students.

Urban Forestry South has been helping Georgia Tech researchers explore urban development/urban forest questions including the effects of tree canopy cover on ambient air temperature and pollution in extra-urban settings, the role of trees on stormwater runoff mitigation, and the effects of tree roots on underground utilities and vice versa.

Providing ongoing classroom instruction is another way that Urban Forestry South can help. As this partnership continues, Urban Forestry South hopes to help shape the future of urban development by showing future engineers the benefits of including forest systems in urban design.

For more information, email Eric Kuehler at

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