Environmental Management

, Volume 60, Issue 6, pp 1042–1061 | Cite as

Growing Canopy on a College Campus: Understanding Urban Forest Change through Archival Records and Aerial Photography

  • Lara A. RomanEmail author
  • Jason P. Fristensky
  • Theodore S. Eisenman
  • Eric J. Greenfield
  • Robert E. Lundgren
  • Chloe E. Cerwinka
  • David A. Hewitt
  • Caitlin C. Welsh


Many municipalities are setting ambitious tree canopy cover goals to increase the extent of their urban forests. A historical perspective on urban forest development can help cities strategize how to establish and achieve appropriate tree cover targets. To understand how long-term urban forest change occurs, we examined the history of trees on an urban college campus: the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. Using a mixed methods approach, including qualitative assessments of archival records (1870–2017), complemented by quantitative analysis of tree cover from aerial imagery (1970–2012), our analysis revealed drastic canopy cover increase in the late 20th and early 21st centuries along with the principle mechanisms of that change. We organized the historical narrative into periods reflecting campus planting actions and management approaches; these periods are also connected to broader urban greening and city planning movements, such as City Beautiful and urban sustainability. University faculty in botany, landscape architecture, and urban design contributed to the design of campus green spaces, developed comprehensive landscape plans, and advocated for campus trees. A 1977 Landscape Development Plan was particularly influential, setting forth design principles and planting recommendations that enabled the dramatic canopy cover gains we observed, and continue to guide landscape management today. Our results indicate that increasing urban tree cover requires generational time scales and systematic management coupled with a clear urban design vision and long-term commitments. With the campus as a microcosm of broader trends in urban forest development, we conclude with a discussion of implications for municipal tree cover planning.


City planning history Landscape design Sustainable campus Urban ecology Urban environmental history Urban tree canopy 



At Penn, we thank D Garofalo and D Hollenberg of FRES for supporting this research and funding JP Fristensky and CC Welsh. JP Fristensky was also sponsored by the US Forest Service Philadelphia Field Station. We thank MF Lloyd, TH Horning, JM Duffin, and JJ Ahern for guiding us through the campus archives. We thank G McNichol from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission for sharing aerial photography. Helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript were provided by R Weller, MF Lloyd, S Willig, H Pearsall, and two anonymous reviewers.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC (outside the USA) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lara A. Roman
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jason P. Fristensky
    • 1
    • 2
  • Theodore S. Eisenman
    • 3
  • Eric J. Greenfield
    • 4
  • Robert E. Lundgren
    • 5
  • Chloe E. Cerwinka
    • 5
  • David A. Hewitt
    • 6
  • Caitlin C. Welsh
    • 5
  1. 1.USDA Forest Service, Northern Research StationPhiladelphia Research StationPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Berger PartnershipSeattleUSA
  3. 3.Dept. of Landscape Architecture and Regional PlanningUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA
  4. 4.USDA Forest Service, Northern Research StationSyracuseUSA
  5. 5.Facilities & Real Estate ServicesUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  6. 6.Wagner Free Institute of SciencePhiladelphiaUSA

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