Exploring Boston's Urban Forest

Climate Change

Exploring Boston’s Urban Forest

How are our most important neighbors - our cities' trees - faring? Find out while exploring one charming city.

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Urban forests are more than pretty: they mitigate climate change, improve psychological health, filter pollutants, and increase oxygen levels.

Cities are made up of buildings and streets, but between and among human structures are thousands of trees that make up the urban forest. Urban forests offer more than a respite from city life: they mitigate the risk of climate change, improve psychological health, filter pollutants, and produce oxygen.

Earthwatch is collaborating with the arborist of the City of Cambridge, Chelsea Department of Public Works, the City of Somerville, and the City of Boston, to collect data to study and protect the thousands of trees that make up these city's critically important urban forests.

You'll be trained in techniques for identifying species, measuring and observing individual tree samples, and uploading data via mobile apps. During the course of the day you'll work in groups, exploring Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville, or Boston’s urban forest and collecting data on the health, growth patterns, and impact on buildings and streets of individual trees.

You'll help build a growing database of information needed to understand how trees contribute to cities, how they might help to improve a city’s resiliency in the face of a changing environment, and what they need to survive and thrive.

The facts

Why the research is important

Why the research is important

As cities grow, urban green space declines, leading to negative impacts on environmental quality and human well-being.

The impact of urban forests on biodiversity and cities’ resiliency to climate change is significant—and it is increasing rapidly around the world.

Today, more than 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, and this number continues to rise. As cities grow, urban green space declines, leading to negative impacts on environmental quality and human well-being.

Although urban trees offer great benefits, they can also cause problems. Roots undermine sidewalks, leaves create slippery hazards, and branches fall on power lines. Their impact on the public makes trees an integral and active part of urban planning for most, if not all, cities and municipalities. Little research has been conducted on urban forests compared with research on typical forests, making Earthwatch's Urban Resiliency Program an exciting and significant development.

As a volunteer, you’ll pioneer the work of Earthwatch's Urban Resiliency Program.

As a volunteer, you'll pioneer the work of Earthwatch's Urban Resiliency Program. In Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville, or Boston, we will be comparing our findings with those of a study done five years ago or creating a base dataset to compare to future data collection. The objective of the project is to draw statistical comparisons over time that will allow city officials to relate changes in the urban forest (tree species and size) to changes in environmental conditions (road traffic density, height of surrounding buildings, and surface composition).

The information you collect will support improved management of urban trees and provide data to underscore the positive impact the urban forest has on the environment and local community.

About the research area

Your expedition will take place in Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville, or Boston, Massachusetts.

Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, and Somerville have many highlights including the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) route that leads you to 16 historically significant sites, including the Old North Church. Exploring the North End of Boston is like visiting Italy: it's home to authentic trattorias, bakeries, and winding cobblestone streets. Boston also boasts major sports venues, top-notch theater and music, attractions such as Faneuil Hall and the outdoor Haymarket, and world-class art, science, and cultural museums.

Daily life in the field


This is a summary:

  • MORNING: Rendezvous in Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville, or Boston (depending on your team), orientation, break into groups and begin data collection on trees.
  • AFTERNOON: After lunch, complete data collection, and debrief on results near the end of day.

You’ll begin your expedition in the morning at the rendezvous location listed in your expedition briefing. There, you’ll learn about the value of urban forests, the purpose of the research, overview of methods, and health and safety.

After an introduction to the research, you’ll break into groups to:

  • Walk to your trees. Each team will get assigned blocks and maps that note the location of the trees on those blocks; as the day progresses, you'll stroll between streets to check on each one.
  • Tree "work-ups." Once you reach a tree, you'll identify its species, measure its diameter, and take notes on its condition. You’ll also note the location of overhead wires and the impact of tree roots. You’ll enter all information into a mobile app, which will support the process of statistical analysis and report generation.

Your findings will help to answer major questions about the management of urban forests, such as: Which species are growing faster than others? Which species are dying faster (certain pests target particular species, so information on their prevalence can aid in forest management)? How is the forest growing or changing?

Watch our training videos before going out into the field to be extra prepared!

How to measure tree diameter – link
How to take GPS location - link

Expedition Locations:

Saturday, June 6 Cambridge, MA
Saturday, June 27 Boston, MA
Tuesday, July 7 Somerville, MA
Tuesday, July 28 Somerville, MA
Saturday, August 22 Chelsea, MA
Saturday, August 29 Cambridge, MA
Saturday September 5 Chelsea, MA



Boston's Urban Forest

A volunteer measures a tree's diameter at breast height—the standard way scientists take this measurement.

The Scientists


Research Director, Urban Forests, Earthwatch

ABOUT Vanessa Boukili

Dr. Vanessa Boukili works with Earthwatch to research the urban forest and to see what kinds of tree species grow best in different types of environmental conditions.



Accommodations and Food

Accommodations and Food

  • Lunch provided
  • No accommodations required

You’ll be provided with a healthy sandwich lunch and snacks while in the field. Exploring Boston’s Urban Forest is a one-day expedition, so no accommodation is provided.

If you’re a visitor to the Boston area, you have a wide range of options available to you, ranging from cozy bed-and-breakfast accommodations to world-class hotels, and from sandwich shops to world-class restaurants. Your group may opt to dine together following the expedition.


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