An interview with Kate Chesebrough, MLA ’24
Master of Landscape Architecture student Kate Chesebrough spent six weeks this summer working as an urban forestry research fellow with the Center for International Forestry and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) in Nairobi, Kenya. The fellowship was funded by the Frederick Dreer Award, and Chesebrough is advised by Jamie Vanucchi, associate professor of landscape architecture.
What drew you to landscape architecture, and to Kenya?
The world is globalizing, and as landscape architects, a big part of our practice is making cities more livable. I’ve worked in Rio de Janeiro, rural El Salvador and across New York, and one of the key things I’ve learned is that urban forestry should be really based on the needs of local communities. We need to look beyond just a target number of trees and remember that green spaces provide important cultural and social benefits, as well as economic and environmental benefits. For the Dreer award, I had the opportunity to travel somewhere I’ve never been before, and I wanted to remain in the Global South. Cathy Watson, who is chief of partnerships at CIFOR-ICRAF and supervised my fellowship, is spearheading a new push within that organization toward urban forestry.
What did you do and learn while in Kenya?
My research in Nairobi centered on the community organizations, especially youth groups, who are planting and caring for trees in low-income, informal settlements. Tree canopy cover and access to green open spaces are noticeably lacking in informal settlements when compared to more affluent neighborhoods in Nairobi. The disparity of tree cover, as well as access to basic infrastructure, sanitary infrastructure and waste infrastructure, is a very noticeable part of the landscape there. I conducted interviews with a diverse group of stakeholders in the realm of urban forestry, including CIFOR-ICRAF staff and scientists, public space experts at UN Habitat, designers, planners, and community organizers at Kounkuey Design Initiative and Slum Dwellers International; and Kenyan municipal staff.
The most valuable insights came from site visits led by youth groups working in informal settlements, who are undertaking climate action initiatives, including growing trees. According to Slum Dwellers International, there are over 360 youth groups in the Mathare settlements alone. I was meeting with people and touring the informal settlements as a guest to learn more about what’s most important to the people in these communities. What I found really striking is that the youth groups and other organizations are choosing to prioritize bringing open green space and beauty into their communities; these groups demonstrate a long-term, philosophical commitment to not just planting trees, but growing and caring for trees. This is important because the environmental benefits trees provide – carbon drawdown, oxygen production, flood resilience, relief from urban heat – don’t happen unless the trees are cared for and survive.
What did the people you talked with most value in their urban forests?
Many community groups are growing fruit trees in cities, which increases food security and relieves some of the pressures on rural forests. In Nairobi, traditional medicine is very widely used among populations that are rapidly urbanizing. Western medicine is out of reach of most people experiencing poverty, and tree bark is something widely used in traditional medicine. Supporting urban forestry is also a way of addressing public health and valuing traditional medicine.
What are your future plans for this work?
This research forms the basis for my master’s thesis, and the deliverables for this project will include site- and systems- scale designs that demonstrate how growing native trees can connect neighborhoods and become a forestry network in Nairobi, with projections for how forests are cared for by communities. Care-taking, if undertaken as part of the local and global mission of urban forestry, would address social and ecological needs by supporting green jobs and biological diversity. Emphasizing that human-tree relationships are a meaningful climate adaptation is the ultimate goal.
I love that landscape architecture brings together so many different elements and disciplines: horticulture, global development, design and community organizing. My advisor, Jamie Vanucchi, has helped me understand how design research both draws from and complements scientific research; integrating different types of knowledge leads to better, more-resilient, long-term outcomes.
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