Ryerson Launches App Enabling Canadians to Interact with Trees

Torontonians can now walk through one of their local parks, whip out their iPhone, and learn the ecology of each tree, thanks to Parktrees, a web app recently launched by researchers at Ryerson University.

“The inspiration behind the development of Parktrees is to raise awareness of the value of nature in cities, especially trees, by engaging a new generation of citizens for whom mobile devices are now ubiquitous,” says Andrew Millward, a Ryerson geography professor and chief investigator with Ryerson’s Urban Forestry Research and Ecological Disturbance (UFRED) group.

“City trees provide many tangible and intangible benefits to urban residents, and we hope to raise mindfulness of Toronto’s urban forest with the view that knowledge can be a bridge to engagement and stewardship,” he added.

The app, launched by the UFRED Group, shows each tree on a map filtered according to a specific set of data. Users can click on each one to learn key ecological and environmental information such as the annual amount of carbon stored, air pollution removed and storm water runoff mitigation.

Users can also rate each tree’s condition for all users to see, Millward adds. This includes whether the tree still exists, if it‘s damaged, or has missing branches or canopy.

“By using the geolocation functionality within these smart devices, [users] can take a walk in the urban forest visualizing his or her position in relation to trees included in the Parktrees database,” he says.

At this point, the app includes data on about 1500 trees in Ryerson’s urban forest, Grange Park near the Art Gallery of Ontario and Earlscourt Park near St. Clair and Lansdowne.

“By offering a web app that can accurately communicate what trees are actually contributing to our everyday lives, we hope to heighten the social responsibility felt towards our urban forests and to maximize the stewardship we afford to our cities’ trees,” says Nikesh Bhagat, a Ryerson sociology graduate who helped develop the app.

Still in beta testing, the app evolved from research projects from Ryerson’s graduate program in spatial analysis. Development began about two years ago when the project received funding from Park People, a Toronto non-profit organization dedicated to preserving green spaces in the city, and the MITACS Accelerate Grant Program.

In terms of why web versus mobile, Millward says “we chose this development route as opposed to developing a native app that one would be able to download from the App Store or Google Play because of the detachment from device hardware and operating systems that it allows. Web applications continue to evolve and, with help from APIs, frameworks, and new HTML5 standards, much of the functionality of a native app can be achieved via a web app.”

Millward and his research team hope to expand the app to include more parks in Toronto. “We’re pursuing funding that would allow us to expand the functionality of Parktrees, as well as its geographic reach,” he says.

They also plan to incorporate the ability for homeowners to upload information about the condition of their trees through the app.

“This information could play a vital role in helping municipalities to better manage their cities’ tree canopy and encourage residents to contribute to the urban forest by planting and caring for trees on their properties,” Millward says.