Stillmeadow Peace Park & Forest: An Experiment in Rehabilitation of a Degraded Urban Forest

Research Issue

[photo:] Community partners and volunteers help prepare materials that will be used to build a deer (exclusion) fence around the experimental cuttings that will be used in the research plots. Photo by McKay Jenkins, University of Delaware.

A National Research Issue

A critical issue facing many resource managers, public health officials, engineers, planners, community organizers, and social justice advocates is how to keep communities functioning, thriving, and safe in an era of climate instability, stressors, and extreme events.  Heat waves, flooding, invasive insects and disease, and other disturbances are becoming more frequent and extreme, and also tend to impact communities of color and the most vulnerable members of society the hardest.  Throughout the country, the presence and health of forests in cities has been identified as key to the resilience of communities and ecosystems, and a critical component of public health, environmental justice, and a healthy childhood experience.

A Local Partnership Project

Stillmeadow Community Fellowship Church is the owner of 10 acres of forest land and a stream known as the Stillmeadow Community Peace Park & Forest.  The Church and its forest are situated in the heart of the Beechfield and Irvington neighborhoods in southwest Baltimore City, Maryland.  The community is made up of predominantly African American households that have been historically underserved, and are vulnerable to flooding and heatwaves intensified by climate change.

The 10-acre forested parcel is ecologically degraded and contains many dead ash trees that have succumbed to emerald ash borer.  The site is also heavily overgrown with invasive vines. Deer grazing deters growth of understory plants.  Historic aerial imagery from the 1920’s and 1950’s shows this area was used for agriculture and then lightly forested, but with reforestation and rehabilitation over time it can become a green space where local residents can walk the paths, enjoy the shade and commune with nature.  Research demonstrates the importance of spaces such as these for public health and well-being as well as for community health and resilienceHealthy forest patches also serve as a critical buffer against extreme heat, provide refugia for biodiversity, and help ameliorate the effects of extreme precipitation. 

Our Research

The USDA Forest Service’s Research and Development, State and Private Forestry and National Forest System branches have joined forces in planning and carrying out this urban silviculture project at the Stillmeadow Community Peace Park & Forest. This effort is in collaboration with Pastor Michael Martin, leader of the Stillmeadow Community Church and a broad array of other partners and community residents.  The project is notable as it will add to the developing body of research and practice about how to most effectively restore forests in an urban environment. These forests are critical to climate resilience in cities and towns nationwide that, collectively, are home to hundreds of millions of people.  Knowledge such as this is needed to maintain the health of forests, people, and the economy as climate stressors continue to compound.  This shared stewardship project will produce outcomes at scale, resulting in knowledge that will be replicable across communities with similar climates and ecologies.

Researchers will be conducting experiments at the site to identify a rehabilitation “prescription” to improve forest health, but first the dead ash trees need to be removed. If left “as-is” the site would not regenerate in an ecologically healthy or productive fashion, but would instead be overrun by invasive plants and vines.  In September 2020, the Saw Program Coordinator from the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Virginia traveled to Baltimore to train local staff in removing dead and invasive trees from the site. Not only will this critical work advance the project, but these kinds of interactions create knowledge exchange across geographical boundaries, strengthening our understanding of silvicultural practices to improve forest health across communities.

Once the site is cleared, scientists will employ a variety of forestry practices to rehabilitate the site, including phytotechnologies designed to help foster anthropogenic succession.  One experiment involves planting twelve different genotypes of fast-growing poplars and willows.  These trees will help mitigate site degradation while moving toward restoration of ecosystem services.  Other experiments involve comparing effectiveness of woodchips and sawdust in suppressing growth of invasive species, and using fencing to prevent deer grazing.

Over time, scientists will compare the different tree genotypes in their effectiveness in stabilizing the site and building a biodiverse and climate resilient native forest.  Later planned actions include reintroduction of chestnut and elm trees that are native to this region.

Expected Outcomes

This project involves implementing a range of restoration practices and tools to support healthy forests and local communities threatened by forest stresses; engaging youth and community members in stewardship activities, and assessing benefits of restoring forest health.

Ecological benefits include developing best practices for restoring healthy urban forests and revitalizing local communities nearby through a shared stewardship approach.  Knowledge about innovative urban reforestation techniques will be co-produced with local and state land management agencies and community land trusts through field visits, demonstration, webinars, and multi-media content. Particular emphasis will be placed on communicating about restoration techniques suited to urban forest site conditions and local stewardship capacity.

Research Results

Hallett, R; Piana, M; Pregitzer, C. 2019. Silviculture in the city: Can traditional silvicultural practices inform urban forest management? In: IUFRO World Congress. Curitiba, Brazil September 29 - October 5.

Simmons, Brady L.; Hallett, Richard A.; Sonti, Nancy Falxa; Auyeung, D.S.N.; Lu, Jacqueline W.T. 2016. Long-term outcomes of forest restoration in an urban park. Restoration Ecology. 24(1): 109-118. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.12281.

Zalesny, Ronald S.; Stanturf, John A.; Gardiner, Emile S.; Bañuelos, Gary S.; Hallett, Richard A.; Hass, Amir; Stange, Craig M.; Perdue, James H.; Young, Timothy M.; Coyle, David R.; Headlee, William L. 2016. Environmental technologies of woody crop production systems. Bioenergy Research, Vol. 9(2):492-506. 15 p. 10.1007/s12155-016-9738-y https://doi.org/10.1007/s12155-016-9738-y.

Oldfield, Emily E.; Felson, Alexander J.; Auyeung, D. S. Novem; Crowther, Thomas W.; Sonti, Nancy F.; Harada, Yoshiki; Maynard, Daniel S.; Sokol, Noah W.; Ashton, Mark S.; Warren, Robert J.; Hallett, Richard A.; Bradford, Mark A. 2015. Growing the urban forest: tree performance in response to biotic and abiotic land management. Restoration Ecology. 23(5): 707-718. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.12230.

Oldfield, Emily E.; Felson, Alexander J.; Wood, Stephen A.; Hallett, Richard A.; Strickland, Michael S.; Bradford, Mark A. 2014. Positive effects of afforestation efforts on the health of urban soils. Forest Ecology and Management. 313: 266-273. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2013.11.027.

Zalesny, Ronald S., Jr.; Hallett, Richard A.; Falxa-Raymond, Nancy; Wiese, Adam H.; Birr, Bruce A. 2014. Propagating native Salicaceae for afforestation and restoration in New York City's five boroughs. Native Plants Journal. 15(a):29-41.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Nancy Sonti, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Research Ecologist
  • Morgan Grove, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Research Social Scientist
  • Ron Zalesny, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Research Plant Geneticist
  • Rich Hallett, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Research Ecologist
  • Max Piana,  University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Post Doc

Research Partners

  • Last modified: May 14, 2021