The Internet of Nature: How technology could shape our urban forests of the future
Dr. Nadina Galle got her “eureka moment” at the age of 12.
Terrified after watching a Canadian documentary called The End of Suburbia, she worried that the lifestyle she enjoyed growing up in a Canadian suburb in Waterloo, Ont., would eventually lead to the “collapse of the society (she) was born into.”
She remembers a happy childhood playing with her friends in their big, grass-filled backyards. It was a lifestyle, however, that even at an early age, she realized had its flaws.
“At the age of 12, I decided it would become my life’s mission to build better places for people to live,” Dr. Galle explains in her highly entertaining and informative TEDx talk.
“Born in the Netherlands and raised in Canada, I developed my love for the outdoors and my commitment to conserving nature from a young age. Reading works by Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler as a teenager, I questioned the imbalance between nature and the encroaching urban sprawl I saw around me in suburban Canada,” explains the former Fulbright scholar and MIT researcher.
Today, Dr. Galle is working at the forefront of smart nature-based solutions, exploring how technology can transform the way we care for our natural urban environment. Her website The Internet of Nature is a treasure trove of information about how technology can benefit the urban forest including links to her cutting-edge podcasts.
On her quest to build better places for people to live, she studied ecology, evolutionary biology, earth sciences, and eventually went on to earn a PhD in Ecological Engineering. In her fascinating TEDx Talk, she defines Ecological Engineering as the “design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both.”
Remember that inquisitive, yet terrified little 12-year-old girl’s promise to herself?
Well, her lifelong pursuit of learning eventually led her to her PhD in Ecological Engineering at MIT and University College Dublin and what has emerged is what she calls “Internet of Nature.”
How gardeners can help protect the urban forest?
What does all this mean to the average woodland/wildlife gardener, or simply the urban homeowner living with a typical yard?
It means that although we gardeners may think of our gardens as ours alone to enjoy and experience, they are actually part of a much larger environment that makes up the urban forest – a forest that in most urban areas around the globe is under severe threat from natural (climate change) and human intervention.
Irish garden designer and author Mary Reynolds promotes this approach to natural gardening in her book The Garden Awakening where she advocates for homeowners to consider their properties like “natural arks” that form smaller islands of nature that can join together to provide much larger islands of native plants, trees and natural environments. (You can explore her approach further in my article about her work here).
This approach to urban gardening also means that traditional thinking probably has to change to ensure that our urban forests provide us with the natural environment so many of us depend on for our future well being. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it has made us more aware of the importance of green spaces and the natural environment to our own well being.
Protecting the urban forest has never been more important
The very fact trees sequester carbon is reason enough to plant as many new trees as possible. However, it’s been proven that older, existing trees (and their soils!) are even more effective at sequestering carbon, so ensuring their protection and continued health in our urban areas is vitally important.
Every year the urban forest is under greater threat, Dr. Galle explains in her TEDx Talk. This is hammered home by the fact that every week approximately 3 million people move (or are forced to move) to cities around the globe.
“Everyone is talking about how many people are moving to cities, but no one is talking about what kind of life they will live once they move there,” she explains.
How we protect the urban forest in the future is what Dr. Galle wants to change, and she wants technology to be leading the way. (More on that later in the article. First it’s important to understand our role as gardeners and homeowners in the whole process.)
“Roughly 50-70 per cent of the urban forest in any given city is on private/homeowner land, which means only 30-50 per cent is actually in the maintenance area of the city,” Dr. Galle explains via email to Ferns & Feathers from her home in the Netherlands.
“This is crucial because it shows the massive role homeowners can have in the development and longevity of the urban forest.”
An important point author Peter Wohlleben makes in his NYT best selling book The Hidden Life of Trees, (link to an earlier article on the book) and one that Dr. Galle echoes in her writings and talks, is that a tree planted in the heart of an urban landscape has a typical lifespan of a mere 7-30 years. The same tree planted in a natural forest can easily live to 100 years and considerably more given the right conditions.
Dr. Galle has even identified Wohlleben and the UBC forest ecologist, Dr. Suzanne Simard, whom he covers extensively in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, as a major influence in her work, particularly research on how trees communicate through underground fungi that can connect to the roots of other trees (and plants) to create what’s called a mycorrhizal network. A mycorrhizal network can influence the survival, growth, health, and behavior of the trees linked within its extensive network or community. Trees use their network to not only communicate, but to share resources, often stemming from the resources of the “Mother Tree”, the most connected tree in the network.
This underground network, Dr. Galle emphasizes, needs to not only be protected through proper watering, fertilization and care, but encouraged to branch out in urban environments whenever possible. Success will depend on a multitude of factors including the cooperation of individual homeowners to protect the trees on their properties.
How valuable is a single tree on your property?
In fact, in his follow-up book The Heartbeat of Trees, Wohlleben gives an example of how a study conducted by Chicago University researchers found that a single tree planted on the lawn of an urban property can increase the benefits to the homeowner by the equivalent of an annual pay increase of $10,000. The study, conducted with thousands of Toronto, Canada residents, also showed that two trees planted in the front could provide the health and well-being benefits equal to an annual income increase of $20,000.
If this doesn’t convince homeowners of the importance of maintaining their own trees in their front yards, it’s hard to imagine what will.
“Most homeowners don’t realize the trees on their land (may be) protected by a private tree ordinance, meaning you can only cut down trees (even when you own the land!) with a permit,” Dr. Galle explains. “Otherwise, you can be fined, or even jailed (though I doubt that’s ever happened).”
“Many cities, like Santa Monica, for example,currently don’t have private tree ordinances, but after remote sensing analysis revealed they’d lost 20-30 per cent canopy cover on private residences in just a few short years, they’re rapidly trying to instate a private tree ordinance. Otherwise, there will be no urban forest left!" says Dr. Galle. (Readers can learn more about Santa Monica’s urban forester and his struggles to maintain its urban forest in a S2E10 of the Internet of Nature Podcast here.)
How can homeowners preserve and protect their trees?
Dr. Galle recommends four ways homeowners can preserve their trees and do their part to ensure the longevity of the urban forest.
• Understand your trees: use a tree identification app to understand what grows around you and learn as much as you can about them and their history.
• Don’t cut down your trees unless absolutely necessary. If you must cut a tree down, replant smartly, meaning planting native trees that will thrive in that location.
• Water your trees when it’s hot and dry, and use a sensor to help you understand when and how much water you have provided the tree so you don’t over water, which can also be dangerous to the tree.
• Find and invest in a good local arborist for regular tree health inspections. Regular inspections of your trees will help to keep you, your property, and the tree safe.
How technology can help protect the urban forest
Protecting individual trees is certainly a step in the right direction, but Dr. Galle is more focused on protecting the entire urban forest.
It’s obviously a momentous task that, up until recently, was often the primary responsibility of city planners, work crews and arborists working tirelessly to provide what they thought the trees, plants and wildlife needed to prosper.
What Dr. Galle and her co-researchers found after talking to these critical workers at the frontlines of urban forest protection is that they really did not know what was needed to protect the urban forest in its entirety. Their expertise certainly guided them in the right direction, but specific day-to-day, week-to-week, season-to-season evidence was sorely missing.
The result: Protecting the urban forest was, at least to some extent, a guessing game and climate change is making guessing that much more difficult.
So, Dr. Galle began to ask: “What if technology could step in where Earth’s biological communications networks have been altered and disrupted?”
And so, the Internet of Nature (IoN) was born.
What is the Internet of Nature?
Working with scientists, researchers and companies around the world – including Canada, the U.S., Australia, China, and across Europe – Dr. Galle is developing a multifaceted approach to monitoring the health of our urban forests through technology: more specifically the internet.
“After seeing both the ‘Smart City’ and ‘Green City’ agendas gain popularity, irrespective of one another, I began to explore ways to integrate these precision methods to build greener and smarter cities, she explains in an interview with the Amsterdam International Water Web,.
Dr. Galle explains that “The Internet of Nature (IoN) makes use of emerging technologies, like sensors, satellite imagery, computer algorithms, and many more, to represent urban ecosystems and turn green spaces into data that helps us better understand how to manage them.”
She goes on to explain that: “It doesn’t only collect data to help monitor these important spaces, but also reconnect city dwellers to nature — and better understand how people feel about it.”
“In my research and work, I have experimented with sensors, satellite and drone images, online reviews, big data, plant ID apps, and many more, to find the best ways to measure and monitor urban nature. From that, the Internet of Nature arose, helping us monitor nature, but also reconnect people to the greenery at their doorstep.”
As part of her lifelong ambition to provide healthier and better places for people to live, Dr. Galle explains that IoN technologies have experimented with sentiment analysis to mine citizen opinion of green space by training a computer to ‘decipher’ online reviews, interaction and engagement rates. “This way we learn more about how people experience green spaces.”
Sentiment analysis algorithms would, for example, enable cities to help establish how people feel about certain urban green spaces including parks compared to more natural areas based on reviews left on sites like TripAdvisor, or on-line questionnaires.
How sensors play a role in protecting trees?
By using electronic IoT sensors designed and built in the Netherlands by SoilMania, scientists and arborists are able to monitor tree’s needs, stresses and environment at any time through a computer and even apps on a phone. This information can then be extrapolated to all the trees in a given area and solutions provided to protect them.
SoilMania, founded only four years ago, is already being used on crops, fields and greenhouses; on golf courses and sports fields; as well as in public and green areas including entire cities to monitor the needs of the urban forest.
It may be nothing more than providing information telling arborists when a tree needs deep watering. The in-ground sensor will also tell workers exactly how much water and or fertilizer the trees need and provide information about how much water has reached the trees’ roots.
Sensors are even able to monitor, for example, the salt in the soil around a tree’s roots that can build up as cities continue to spread salt on roads during winter months. If salt levels build to dangerous levels, the company even provides a solution to bind with the salt or other toxic elements to neutralize them before it can damage the tree. The method has already prevented hundreds of untimely tree deaths related to salt damage.
During her time at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, she was interested in seeing if there was microbial activity in the soil around inner-city “street trees” using sensors to detect the activity and therefore the health of the tree.
This research also led to the possibility of using remote sensing technology through satellite imagery. “I’m particularly interested in hyperspectral imagery” that can pick up on vegetation and the health of vegetation in minute detail from satellites that are able to orbit the earth twice in a single day. Although such imagery is already being used in agriculture and forestry, significantly improved resolution now enables scientists and arborists to actually “measure the health of individual trees.
Dr. Galle’s childhood dream of creating a better place for people to live continues to be a work in progress. Her commitment and dedication to achieving this goal has led her down a path of knowledge and academic excellence that is sure to end in success – exactly what that success entails is still yet to be written.
However, there are many barriers standing in the way – not the least the acceptance needed of how technology can solve the problems large cities face when it comes to protecting urban forests.
Added to that is the continued damage inflicted on our urban forests by nature, climate change, and most importantly, homeowners who either don’t know, or worse, don’t respect the important part trees play in our lives.
The challenges are too many for any one person to tackle, but, with the power of the internet, maybe, just maybe Dr. Galle and her team can find those solutions.
Let’s hope so. Our lives may depend on it.