Urban forests are multifunctional socio-ecological landscapes, yet some of their social benefits remain poorly understood. This paper draws on ethnographic evidence from Seattle, Washington to demonstrate that urban forests contain nontimber forest products that contribute a variety of wild foods, medicines, and materials for the wellbeing of urban residents. We show that gathering wild plants and fungi in urban forests is a persistent subsistence and livelihood practice that provides sociocultural and material benefits to city residents, and creates opportunities for connecting with nature and enhancing social ties. We suggest that an orientation toward human-nature interactions in cities that conceptualizes the gathering of forest products as a legitimate social benefit may support and expand urban forest justice. Urban forest justice recognizes the rights of local people to have control over their own culturally appropriate wild food and health systems, including access to natural resources and to the decision-making processes affecting them.
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We use the definition provided by the 1978 U.S. Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act, which defines urban forests as “trees and associated plants, individually, in small groups, or under forest conditions within cities, their suburbs, and towns.” Following this definition, urban forests include all trees, associated understory vegetation, and fungi in urban areas on private and public land. This definition also includes trees and other plants historically or ornamentally cultivated, which may be found in diverse spaces such as natural areas, street edges, parks, and vacant lots.
“Wild foods” in this study refers to edible organisms gathered in the wild. These may come from native or introduced species, and grow naturally or opportunistically in associated habitats. Wild foods may come from tended or cultivated species, but which are not intentionally planted or maintained for agricultural food production. This may include “weeds”, ornamental species in landscaped areas, and remnant plants (e.g., from trees of former orchards subdivided into newer urban lots.) For a discussion on challenges in defining “wild foods”, see Bharucha and Pretty (2010).
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We are grateful for the gatherers and research participants. We would like to thank research assistants Lauren Urgenson and Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook, as well as Arthur Lee Jacobson, Alissa Allen and Noah Siegel for species identification support, and Leilan Greer for assistance with copy-editing. We thank the two anonymous reviewers. We also thank Ursinus College Institutional Review Board for review of our methods. This work was supported by the USDA Pacific Northwest Research Station and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
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Poe, M.R., McLain, R.J., Emery, M. et al. Urban Forest Justice and the Rights to Wild Foods, Medicines, and Materials in the City. Hum Ecol 41, 409–422 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-013-9572-1
- Urban foraging
- Forest justice
- Urban ecosystems
- Social benefits