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Campus partners with city to research tree canopy impact

Community Engagement Apr 26, 2024

IU South Bend Students participate in a Co2 measurement and tree identification activity Wednesday, April, 10, 2024, on campus at IU South B When the city of South Bend set out on a mission to double its tree canopy coverage, officials turned to Indiana University South Bend to help with the research needed to make that happen.

Several academic disciplines on campus are taking part in the project to help the city create and maintain healthy environments that support creating a 40 percent tree canopy coverage by 2050. Over the next five years, the city hopes to develop 10 new nursery sites that will triple the current capacity and supply the reforestation effort with 9,000 additional trees.

IU South Bend’s Center for a Sustainable Future is developing hyperlocal social and environmental impact evaluations of the urban tree nursery expansion. Researchers will assess factors such as biodiversity, resilience to climate change impacts, carbon sequestration and quality of life implications.

“IUSB and the city will monitor changes from baseline data in average air quality, temperature, noise and other parameters as trees are grown and planted and we’ll host engagement sessions to gather community feedback,” said Barbara Dale, project manager for the city of South Bend’s Office of Sustainability.

Dr. Brian Davis with the physics department talks about a device used to measure Co2 Wednesday, April, 10, 2024, on campus at IU South Bend. The Center for a Sustainable Future is joining forces with other sectors of campus for the project. Faculty and students in the physics department, with Dr. Brian Davis and Dr. Ilan Levine leading the design, worked to develop sensors that are being used to measure carbon dioxide levels in the city, ecology students are running experiments, and biology and sociology students are also getting involved.

“As a university, we have the opportunity to collaborate. We have a wide variety of affiliated faculty doing really cool things, but we can all participate in unique ways under this shared approach,” said Zachary Schrank, director of the Center for a Sustainable Future and an associate professor of sociology.

Schrank said faculty in sociology, history, education, biology and physics are working together to understand the impacts of an expanded tree canopy.

“We have professors thinking about this from different angles under this broad idea of environmental and social well-being,” he said.

Students are getting hands-on experiences that will grow in the coming years, according to Dr. Andrew Schnabel, professor of biological sciences.

“The (city) grant will fund students to work for the next several summers. This summer we’re going to be focusing on soil quality in the sites that are going to become tree nurseries,” Schnabel said. “Once the trees are in, we hope to be able to work with the students to evaluate tree health and some of the other ecological or environmental benefits of having those nurseries.”

Senior student Chloe Norton is a sustainability major and a McKinney Midwest Climate Project fellow through IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute. She’s excited to be playing a role in the research along with her fellow students.

“Young people can start to build up their career in sustainability and learn what’s going on in the city. We’re learning how we can further exemplify that impact,” she said.

Schnabel said another student, Kevin Price, a dual history and biology major, is part of the city’s Ecological Advocacy Committee, which advises city leaders on environmental stewardship in the parks and other properties. He’s working on studying the diversity of trees that will be planted through the project.

“We want to come up with a reasonable set of trees so when the citizens of South Bend receive them, they’ll be more accepting and also satisfy some goals for what a healthy urban tree canopy should look like,” Schnabel said.

Schrank said community perception will be part of the research as they gauge how residents are thinking about their neighborhoods over time.

“This is a legacy project for the city. We have this awesome opportunity to be part of both the planning and the measuring of just how impactful it is,” he said.

While students will take part in the research for the four or five years they’re on campus, Schrank hopes they’ll be invested even after they graduate.

“It will take a good 20-plus years. The current students might see the first wave of this happening and have opportunities to do some research, then share with new students and hopefully the institutional interest in this expands,” he said.

The key to that may already be materializing with the inter-disciplinary cooperation. Even non-major students are participating through general education courses.

“We’re tying in how something like this connects with real-life,” said Dr. Deborah Marr, professor of biology. “To get the general education students involved in some of the more sophisticated things that these other areas on campus are doing is critical. It makes real how we can address problems. I think it helps to see us do more than just talk about it and read about it.”

Civic involvement on all levels is something Dale said is important to the city.

“It is so exciting to have our local students working on this. The partnership not only benefits the city in terms of understanding social and environmental impacts, but also provides meaningful, community-based research opportunities for students to engage with in their own backyard.”

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