Syllabus for NR 378 / NR 285: GIS Analysis of New York City's Ecology

Long title: Using spatial analysis tools to help with New York City's million tree campaign
Fall semester 2008
University of Vermont
Instructors: Austin Troy, J. Morgan Grove (USDA Forest Service) and Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne


Purpose and description

New York City is currently undergoing a major multi-million dollar planning effort to improve the quality of its urban environment as part of its PLANYC ( Two of the many goals of this plan are to ensure that no New Yorker lives more than 10 minutes from green open space and that 1 million trees be planted (as part of the Milliontrees NYC campaign;  A good deal of NYC's Million Tree goal was based upon analysis performed by the US Forest Service and UVM Spatial Analysis Lab. Students in this class will work directly with personnel at the NYC Parks and Recreation Department, including the City’s Chief of Forestry and Horticulture to help them analyze the current state of the urban forest and to design plans to help them reach their environmental goals. In this class, students will learn about both the ecosystem services and socio-economic benefits associated with urban trees and forests and the biophysical and socio-economic factors associated with the stewardship of urban trees and forests. Further, they will learn and practice new spatial and statistical methodologies for a number of purposes, including multi-scale characterization, development of urban environmental typologies with spatial cluster analysis and expert system development, and prescriptive mapping processes using model building. Students will use an extensive parcel-level database, including fine-scale classified land cover, provided by the city. Hence, relatively little data acquisition or processing will be needed and students can focus on analysis. The class will begin with a four day field trip to New York City in which students and instructors will meet with official from the Parks and Recreation Department, tour their offices and GIS facilities, meet with representatives from neighborhood stewardship groups and other institutions, such as the US Forest Service. There will also be a number of guided tours of several important parks and natural areas. Finally, there will some GPS data collection, which will serve as an exercise in integrating field data. There will be a fee charged to students of between $100 and $200 for the field trip to defray expenses.

The classroom portion of the course is divided into three segments. In the first segment, students will break into groups, each of which will focus on a different service(s) or function(s) associated with urban trees (e.g. water quality, air quality, energy savings, aesthetics, recreation, property values, carbon storage, neighborhood social capital). The reading lists for these groups will come from an extensive bibliography on urban tree benefits put together by the US Forest Service at In the process of looking at urban forest benefits we will examine how the problem of urban forest planning fits in the literature on integration and urban ecology (which is an inherently integrated discipline).

In the second segment students will break into new groups and focus on developing a descriptive multi-scale typology to categorize areas (e.g. neighborhoods, Census tracts, boroughs, etc.) based on the need for new vegetation, accounting for factors like the level (and potentially health) of vegetation cover, land use, socio-economic characteristics of residents, and proximity to other natural features. Each group will try a different approach towards developing this typology: one will use a “bottom-up” approach using statistical cluster analysis methods. Another will implement an existing approach—the Forest Opportunity Spectrum. The third will use an expert rule-base system. Teams will be divided up so as to get the necessary representation of skills in each group.  Students will present the results of the work to visiting staff from the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which will help in designing approaches for the next assignment. Results of this segment will tentatively be presented by videoconference to City staff.

For the final segment of the class, students will break into groups again and will work on developing prescriptive prioritization maps for targeting tree planting and other “green investments.” In this stage, students will incorporate an on-going project between the US Forest Service and the City which maps and describes areas of influence and locations of activities of the hundreds of urban environmental stewardship groups in the City.  These data are crucial since the potential for stewardship is a prime criterion in the proposed location of urban forestry investments.  As part of this process, students will use the Model Builder environment in ArcGIS to formalize the processes they develop and, in so doing, generate tools that could be re-deployed and adapted by the City. The theme for division of these groups has yet to be determined, but possible ways of dividing up the groups include: 1) by service or function (e.g. one group focusing on planting to maximize air quality, one on property values, etc.); 2) by scale (e.g. one group at the borough scale focusing on landscape-level targeting, one at the neighborhood scale focusing on micro-site targeting, etc.); and 3) by methodological approach (e.g. one group focusing on site selection processes, one on allocation models, one on visualization tools, etc.). Students will present these results to officials from the Department of Parks and Recreation, who will travel up to Burlington. The deliverables of the class, including data, methods, and results, will then be transferred to the City for their use and enhancement. 
More detail on the content of the course is given under “course requirements” and the schedule.


Students enrolling in either section must have had an introductory course in GIS (NR 143, NR 343 or equivalent) and be familiar with ESRI’s ArcGIS. Undergraduates enrolling in NR 285 must be seniors.

Time and Place

There will be a 4-5 day field trip to New York City August 26-29th. Once Fall classes begin, the course will meet weekly on Mondays from 9:00-11:00. Occasionally class time may go past 11:00 when we have special presentations. If this does not fit into students’ schedules, we will look into having special presentations extend to a Wednesday session at the same time. The course meets in 222 Aiken. 

Credits, sections and fee

For NR 285 students, the course is 3 credits. NR 378 is, by definition, a 2 credit course. However, graduate students in 378 may enroll for an additional special topics credit (NR 385) if they wish to get 3 credits for the course.  Although graduate and undergraduate students take the course under different course numbers, this operates as one course  Enrollment is limited to no more than 9 senior undergraduates and no more than 12 graduate students. There will be a fee of between $100 and $200 to defray the cost of the field trip. When the exact amount is determined in spring 2008 all registered students will be notified by email.

Course Format and Requirements

The field trip is required, as is weekly attendance in the class. In class-activities will include a combination of short lectures, discussions, lab exercises, student presentations, and guided project work. All assignments in the class are done in groups. There are three assignments. The first is a literature review. The second is the development of a descriptive typology of urban neighborhoods based on land use and vegetation cover using GIS methods. The third is a prescriptive design for tree planting for several areas at several different scales, also using GIS and other related visualization tools. The first assignment requires a submitting a paper, while the second requires a Powerpoint presentation and documentation of GIS methods/datasets, and the third requires a Powerpoint presentation and final report, including maps and visuals.


Before going on the field trip students will read several background documents on New York City’s tree planting and environmental stewardship campaigns, including the PlaNYC document. For the literature review assignment in the class, students will organize into groups based on thematic areas related to the different identified “functions” of urban trees, and choose their own reading list from an extensive list that we will provide. There will also be readings on thematic topics related to class lectures or exercises for most weeks, given below in the bibliography. Readings will be posted electronically on WebCT.

Academic Integrity

This course involves a lot of writing. Acts of academic dishonesty, particularly plagiarism, are subject to UVM’s rules of academic integrity. The full policy can be found at Please be extremely careful to properly attribute everything you reference from other sources, whether paper or electronic. Pulling text from other sources without proper attribution will be considered plagiarism.

Field Trip Information

Tuesday: leave around 7 AM, arrive around 1:30; Central Park and Upper Manhattan; dinner on upper west side with group from UVM alumni Board
Wednesday: Upper Manhattan; picnic lunch at Swindler's Cover Park; sponsored dinner event at the Arsenal in Central Park
Thursday: South Bronx
Friday: Brooklyn; depart after lunch
Lodging: The NYC Dept of Parks and Recreation will be covering our accommodations at the Hy-New York International Youth Hostel on the Upper West Side
Custom Google Map showing our hostel, our stops and some restaurants around the hostel.
Things to bring
rain gear
flip flops/padlock/towel for hostel
some money for extra meals

Course links

Blacksoard site
Additional urban forestry bibliography

Schedule of classes and readings