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i-Tree: Poppy Cooney and Hannah Birch

Leeds Living Lab

Leeds Living Lab case study: i-Tree

i-Tree Leeds is a city-wide project assessing the economic value of trees and green spaces in terms of their physical and welfare benefits. One major part of the scheme was to evaluate those on the University campus as part of a Living Lab project with over 800 trees being surveyed. It is part of the wider Leeds4Trees project and is a collaboration between the Sustainability Service at the University of Leeds, the United Bank of Carbon, Leeds City Council, the Woodland Trust, Treeconomics and Forest Research. In the autumn term of 2017, as part of their MSc degree, Poppy Cooney (Centre for Doctoral Training Bioenergy) and Hannah Birch (School of Chemical and Process Engineering) completed a CDT mini project around i-Tree.


While both students were involved in the same wider project, the central focus of their work and their methodologies differed. i-Tree is a set of tools originally developed by the US Forest Service to quantify the benefits and values of trees and has been used extensively around the world. Poppy used the software to value trees’ physical benefits and to determine the time taken for new trees to provide similar benefits to those already there. She also looked at areas newly under development to give values to trees already being taken away. ‘It was a case of amassing data and running different datasets through the i-Tree software to come out with some real numbers,’ Poppy explains. Hannah’s approach was more qualitative. She gathered student and staff perceptions of trees and green spaces on campus – such as St George’s Field – and collected data about what values were placed on them, including health and economic benefits. She distributed a survey across the University, gaining insights from a cross-section of respondents – from undergraduate and PhD students to academic and Facilities staff. The Living Lab approach enhanced the project as the University was able to distribute the survey for Hannah and she received around 250 responses. While it might be ‘a drop in the ocean in terms of campus users’ (of which there are around 40,000), ‘it was really good insight across users’. Hannah then used ORVal (Outdoor Recreation Valuation), a tool developed by the University of Exeter, to map out areas and assign a monetary value based on a variety of characteristics.


Both Hannah and Poppy’s involvement in i-Tree came as part of a compulsory project, but they value the experience. Hannah is undertaking a PhD focusing on deforestation and sustainability within business supply chains of tea and coffee. As the i-Tree project looks at related issues of trees and valuing natural capital, she has been able to transfer her experiences to her doctoral research. She also emphasised the benefits of getting involved in an ongoing project that people were already interested in ‘because it was a genuine project that people want to know the answers to.’ Poppy is based in bioenergy so this project was an opportunity to focus on the natural environment and use new software. ‘I appreciated jumping into what was essentially somebody else’s project and expanding on it,’ Poppy says.


The different stakeholders included the Sustainability Service, Gardens and Grounds from Estates Services, and academic staff in the School of Earth and Environment, including Dr Cat Scott (the project lead) and Professor Piers Forster. Poppy explains that because ‘it was quite an open project’, they were able to define it themselves to a certain extent. The students attended a number of Facilities meetings and Hannah highlights how insightful these were as ‘you can get a very one-sided view when you’re researching something … but it’s good to see other perspectives’. It exposed them to the kinds of problems that Facilities are facing, ‘where they’re maybe more concerned with the cost of something.’ The meetings helped Hannah develop an understanding of how and where ‘sustainability and trees on campus fit into the wider picture.’ Poppy explains that the meetings fed in crucial information from the different stakeholders, for instance, the grounds team told them about the types and sizes of trees being planted. Both Hannah and Poppy found the dynamics of working with different stakeholders worked well even though it can sometimes be difficult to get everyone together. Poppy emphasises that non-academic stakeholders were easy to work with. ‘The grounds team gave very quick results; they happily gave us information about what they were doing and their thoughts about it. It sometimes takes a bit longer with academics as they’ve got a lot going on,’ she recalls. Hannah notes that ‘a real positive from the Living Lab perspective’ is that because the Sustainability Service was up and running with the project, she wasn’t having to arrange all the meetings herself, making it easier to get the right people there.

Personal outcomes

For both students, the opportunity to work with different people and network were the greatest benefits of the project. ‘I talked to some really interesting people who I now have contacts for if I’m doing something similar. The contacts in Earth and Environment were really great because they’re working on a huge range of things,’ Poppy highlights. Networking is an integral part of postgraduate research life and ‘finding the time and the right people can be difficult’ but the Living Lab approach facilitates and encourages it. For Hannah, ‘it solidified some key relationships’ with members of academic staff. She also appreciated being ‘treated as an equal’ and states, ‘the key thing I got out of it was doing something of value. It is that valuing of your time that was really, really nice and that people actually care about what you’re saying. It’s given me more confidence.’ Hannah and Poppy also presented on their project at the Student Sustainability Conference last year and see it as a positive part of the experience. For Poppy, it was an opportunity to gain more practice presenting at a ‘safe, internal conference’. In Hannah’s case, it was an important networking opportunity as the chair of her panel (who she had already approached separately) was really engaged with her work and is now one of her PhD supervisors.

Key findings and recommendations

The students were interested in having a balance between the physical and welfare benefits in order to give an overall picture. However, as Poppy reinforces, ‘it’s very hard to value things that aren’t doing physical things; we don’t really have easy ways to value welfare and mental health benefits.’ Hannah explains that a major concern is undervaluing – something that most people find in this scenario. Hannah’s work mapping around seven of the larger areas on campus revealed a value of approximately £800,000-£1,000,000 per annum in terms of health benefits and biodiversity. That is a huge amount, particularly as she didn’t map out the entirety of the campus but if all the trees and smaller areas were taken into account, it would probably be double. For Hannah, ‘there’s always a risk of undervaluing it because I would always say it’s worth more than one million pounds. These things need to be here, there’s not a value!’ The importance of this kind of work is that economic benefits speak to certain people and identifying the monetary value will feed into protection. People might question whether you can put a price on these kinds of things. Poppy struggled with this at first and asked herself, ‘should we really putting economic value on trees? If you put a pound sign on something then people think that they can just pay that much and that will fix the problem when they want to cut down trees – that’s definitely not how it works!’ However, she appreciates the importance of highlighting the economic values to those who perhaps didn’t realise there were financial benefits. The project was an interesting approach as ‘green space valuing and environmental valuing is becoming more popular in making planning decisions – you’re having to take these things into account which is great, you should definitely take trees into account when you do things.’

Poppy explains that the University of Leeds policy is to plant three trees for every tree they cut down. Her ‘most interesting result was working out that three trees take a very long time to give anywhere near the benefits of a large, mature tree’. Poppy recognises that the University tries to avoid cutting down mature trees when possible but she wants them to ‘reinforce that perspective and really try and avoid it.’ There are a lot of campus developments at the moment and there are areas Poppy surveyed where trees have since been cut down, which reinforces the significance of research of this nature. Ideally, the findings from her project will ‘feed into management in terms of more careful planning about the species of trees that they’re choosing to plant.’ This is because while the University often plants ornamental cherry trees, ‘which are fine, they look pretty and they grow quickly’, it’s not ideal because they ‘they will never provide the same benefits as a mature ash or an oak tree if you cut them down.’ A major benefit of a mature ash or oak tree is pollution removal, which has a significant financial and health benefit. Poppy explains that particulate matter gets trapped on leaves, removing it from the air and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide is absorbed.

‘green space valuing and environmental valuing is becoming more popular in making planning decisions – you’re having to take these things into account which is great, you should definitely take trees into account when you do things.’ (Poppy)


The main challenge that the students faced was the process of ethical approval. Gaining ethical approval at the University can sometimes be more complicated than first anticipated and can take time to be approved. Hannah says that in their case it was ‘working out what kind of ethical approval to do and it taking a little while’. It’s sometimes not always clear whether ethical approval is necessary so establishing this early on can help the smooth running of a project. Poppy also recalls that at times the narrow timeframe meant that getting others involved was sometimes a challenge because in academia ‘people don’t always have the best knowledge of a timeframe and what is achievable in a set amount of time’ and so it’s useful to clearly set these out at the very beginning stages.

Favourite aspect

For Poppy, the most positive part of being involved is that the results she produced might be used for something. ‘It’s always the hope that something comes out of research and somebody chooses to go forward with it,’ she explains. The i-Tree project is ongoing so she hopes that the work she and Hannah did feeds in and ‘helps them come up with different strategies for taking trees away or creating new green spaces.’ It’s an exciting and unique opportunity to have your research have an impact on the University that you’re based at. As Poppy puts it, ‘It’s a nice campus, we do have quite a lot of green spaces so it’s good to know that they are being conserved and that there’s some thought going into planning out what we do with them. That was definitely the best part.’ Hannah emphasises how much she enjoyed building relationships with staff, including joining the United Bank of Carbon – a charity protecting and restoring forests and other green spaces – which partially came about following a meeting with Piers Forster and Cat Scott. She sees these relationships as ‘invaluable’ going forward. More than anything, though, it was a project she ‘could really get involved in it, get the fire in your belly and get passionate about it’.

Read more about i-Tree Leeds.

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