What are the benefits of paperless 'tree trails' for tree managers?

Several paperless tree trails, either online or app-based, have gone live in the past year. But what do these offer tree managers and are they worth the investment to set up and maintain?

Image: Urban Green
Image: Urban Green

Manchester-based arboriculture, landscape design and environmental practice Urban Green is among those making such trails available to tree managers. Having developed a prototype for south Manchester’s council-owned Marie Louise Gardens, it then went on to provide a fully functional interactive tree trail for the University of Manchester’s grounds that launched last October, followed last month by one for Cambridge’s Cherry Hinton Hall.

Urban Green representative Rachel Fitzgerald says: "Tree officers are not usually in the business of communicating with an audience, but now it’s part of the remit. Most of their interactions with the public are negative, but with this it is positive, and it lets them reiterate that ‘these are your trees’. Ordinarily tree managers don’t measure who is ‘using’ trees, but anything that does helps make the case for them. The conversation can also move to health — how far people are walking and so how much exercise they are taking."

Integration with social media allows users to share their pictures of trees online, she explains. "There is a groundswell of interest in appreciating urban greenery in an aesthetic way, that you can see, for example, in Instagram’s #wisteriahysteria." This tag alone has brought together nearly 28,000 images and counting on the online photo-sharing platform.

"It also allows them to leave feedback for tree managers. You wouldn’t get that from a traditional printed tree trail," she adds. "You can also monitor who is using different bits and change it in light of that."


While some suppliers have gone down an app-based approach, Urban Green’s platform is web browser-based. "Personally, I don’t like having to download something. For me, it’s a barrier," says Fitzgerald. But there can be technical challenges even for the supplier. "We use open-source software, which can change all the time, so you have to be adaptable," she adds. "The technology moves on so quickly."

The Cambridge trail also "gives ownership" to the city’s tree officers, who have provided much of the information. "Generally we factor in a review in six months’ time, and they get monthly updates on who is using it," she explains.

She adds of the university’s trail, which has already been in use for 10 months: "There was a noticeable seasonal drop in traffic in winter, but it really lifted in spring again."

Public health benefits were integral to a tree trail devised for the Torbay, Devon, area by local consultancy Treeconomics, working with Torbay Council, a local NHS clinical commissioning group and the area’s tree manager Hi-Line. Having been funded by a £10,000 lottery award, the trail, or rather a chain of short tree trails centred on destination parks and landmark trees, launched last September.

Treeconomics chief executive Kenton Rogers says: "You can’t justify in terms of revenue stream but there is value in public health terms, and we were the first in the UK to come at it from that angle. The clinical commissioning group are devising a new strategy and we’re hoping this will be part of it. We want doctors to prescribe it."

It uses a platform from developer curio.xyz that integrates with the area’s existing i-Tree data. "Other people can then add their own trees, or even set up their own trails, which a few have," says Rogers. "It needs promoting so people know it’s there. Through Facebook we’ve had about 50-60 people use it, which is not bad from nothing."

He adds: "The council can take ownership but someone needs to be leading it, and not every council will have that person."

Do-it-yourself approach

The Tree Council has partnered with app provider TiCL Media to allow tree managers, wardens or friends groups to create free smartphone-based trails of their own devising, which can include other green space features such as flower beds, sculptures, play parks and cafés as well as trees. These are recorded by "geo-locating" them on the ground, while images and even links to further online information or social media can then be added.

Doncaster Council-run Sandall Park in South Yorkshire already has such a trail in place, featuring more than 60 tree species in the park. It is the work not of council officials but of its active friends group.

TiCL Media director Simon Edwards says: "Tree officers are a scarce resource, and busy. TiCL Tree Trails are ideally created by, ‘delegated’ if you like, interested members of the public, tree wardens, friends groups, nature groups, schools, etc."

As well as being free to create and use, he points out: "They reduce or eliminate the need for physical signage, maps, noticeboards, labels and way-posts, which are expensive to produce and maintain." They also serve as "effective promotional vehicles for the people who create them" because they bear their creators’ branding and integrate with their social media.

Trails need not be in parks. They can capture information on street trees too, he adds. By creating a tree trail for their street, "a tree champion can help residents identify trees, enable them to report damage and disease, encourage them to look after young trees, water them, remove ties and stakes in a timely fashion, and also create a bridge between the public and the local tree officer".

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