Lived Experience, Essential Narratives, Part 1: How Stories from Urban Foresters and Arborists Can Inform Our Field at Large

Adrina C. Bardekjian, MFC, PhD

Dr. Adrina C. Bardekjian, MFC, PhD, Manager, Urban Forestry Programs and Research Development Dre. Adrina C. Bardekjian, MFC, Ph.D., Gestionnaire des programmes forestiers urbains et du développement de la recherche

As published in City Trees magazine, September/October issue.

Modified excerpt from the author’s PhD dissertation, Learning from Limbwalkers: Arborists’ Stories in Southern Ontario’s Urban Forests (Bardekjian, 2015).

My background is rooted in English literature, creative writing, anthropology, and forest conservation. Throughout my studies, much of my experience and training focused on creative, applied, and technical models. If I wasn’t performing in theatre or reciting poetry on stage, I was trudging through school grounds with a clinometer to conduct tree inventories.

Delving into theoretical frameworks was a completely foreign activity to me until I pursued my doctoral studies at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. This experience expanded my perspectives and allowed me to think critically about the world in which I was working. Through this exploration, I found adequate language and meaningful substance that helped elucidate the importance of the stories that emerged from my research and explain the distinction that my case reveals for urban forestry and arboriculture.

In my doctoral dissertation (2015), I used a political ecology lens (Robbins, 2004) to argue that by communicating under-represented narratives, through lived experience and dialogue (human portraits), stories become the catalyst for change; and then by examining those narratives, they offer comprehensive insights into better practice in urban forestry. My methods were primarily qualitative and centered on theoretical reflection, primary and secondary research, and a series of in-depth (semi-focused) interviews and site-visits with urban foresters and field arborists.

Being the overarching lens through which my research is examined, political ecology helped me to understand and build on the methods employed in urban forest practices that I witnessed as an active participant for over a decade while working for various organizations. Inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) notions of how professional fields need paradigm shifts to progress beyond regular or normal avenues, and Eisenhart’s (1989) notions of building theories from case study analyses, I argued in my dissertation that seeing urban forestry through narratives of lived experience by field workers can better integrate social and ecological considerations in urban forest research, management, and education.

Throughout my dissertation, using arboriculture as a case study, I make theoretical connections in political ecology to the four dominant narratives that emerged from my interviews: language, labour, agency, and learning. By profiling the personal and professional lives of municipal and private sector field arborists in Southern Ontario, Canada, my work suggests ways to re-imagine urban forestry related to: how language and discourse shape identity and thus influence worker perceptions and practice; how considerations for field arborist labour with respect to inequalities and gender perspectives is marginalized and absent in policy; how nature’s agency or tree cultures influence and interact with human agency; and how teaching and learning in siloes and maintaining a status quo stunts arboricultural thinking with respect to social factors.


The first narrative (Bardekjian, 2015: Chapter 4) describes how language and metaphor influence and shape identity and self-awareness in urban forestry workers and how this in turn can impact practice and the urban forest itself. Interviews showed that current language and use of particular metaphors surrounding field arborists and tree care workers in Southern Ontario perpetuate negative perceptions of arborists by others and by themselves. Participants expressed that they are the brunt of many ungrounded assumptions about outdoor workers, such as the notion that they are less educated or knowledgeable than they actually are. They point to the need for their skill-set, which, while integral to urban forest practice, is undervalued in the public eye.

Thus, the profile of urban tree workers needs to be raised from both inside and outside the trade by using accurate terminology and being selective about our choice of metaphors and by more effective marketing and communications through social networking and popular media. Raising the profile of these workers will increase awareness towards accurate knowledge and foster acknowledgement and recognition of the trade as well as foster respect and appreciation towards a return to celebrating physical labour.

The second narrative (Bardekjian, 2015: Chapter 5) explores how arborists negotiate the urban forest as a place of work, including the pressures of policies, the labour market itself, technologies, government regulations, and the non-human agencies that they confront, such as weather, insects, and species particularities. Interviews showed that the existing political climate surrounding urban forestry operations in Southern Ontario can be biased and gendered. Participants expressed polarized perspectives, contentions, and inequalities that affect their practice and personal lives and believe this is a result of an unregulated trade.

Building on identity constructions which evolved from the first storyline, political ecology helped to highlight subjugated narratives that contribute to a better understanding of workplace conditions, behaviours, and ethics—and helped to showcase how dichotomies in management influence operations (e.g., when arborists often are brought into planning processes too late). To this end, developing new policies on health and safety by considering field worker perspectives and listening to their lived experiences is critical.

The third narrative (Bardekjian, 2015: Chapter 6) provides a closer look at arborists’ interactions and feelings about non-human agency (Bardekjian, 2016). Interviews revealed how arborists negotiate the urban forest physically and emotionally as a place of work, play, and community. Participants expressed a constant power struggle with themselves in juggling human and non-human priorities and motivations, and how these impact their personal lives and the urban forest in its own right. For example, tree species made a difference in how some arborists felt about their work on a given day; where the maples and oaks were considered good trees to climb, honeylocusts and willows were considered less favourable. Building on the notion of governance, Jones and Cloke’s (2002) framework for dominant themes for culture, agency, place, and ethics helped with an analysis to reveal the intricacies and challenges of these relationships. Thus, understanding arborist relationships with, and perspectives on, non-human agency is paramount in developing better urban forest decision-making systems and more mindful management practices.

Finally, the fourth narrative (Bardekjian, 2015: Chapter 7) discusses new ways of knowing and producing knowledge in urban forestry with respect to social dimensions and considerations. Interviews with urban tree workers revealed that the lack of standardization of a comprehensive and inclusive urban forestry education creates knowledge divisions both within the industry (formal education) and externally (public education).

Participants expressed their desire for a more comprehensive urban forest education and provided recommended inclusions to formal curriculum at the college level. In addition, interviewees felt that there are many opportunities to better engage the public and raise awareness about arborist roles in maintaining urban trees. Lastly, urban forestry in higher education operates at different levels and can appeal to less technical scholarship; as such, we need to provide a solid baseline of formal education that incorporates critical thinking and social theories to better prepare learners for the interdisciplinary aspects of the field.


Identity constructions influence pride, and this impacts behaviour and job performance. More pointedly, a closer examination of field and climbing arborists’ relationships with trees offers useful insights for planners and policy-makers when visioning for the future of urban forests, given that the change must happen systemically. The respect and care with which field arborists tend to trees presents novel and enticing insights into human-nature connections. Their collective narratives can be explored, communicated, and propagated through urban forestry networks.

Trees live through time and space in ways we cannot imagine. More pointedly, they live through temporal/generational changes as well as physical and geographical changes. For example, a tree living for 200 years will survive a forest, a farmland, and perhaps a sub-division development. The continuous physical changes over time also have many social and cultural variances that impact and influence the tree (Rangan and Kull, 2009).

My interviews revealed that field workers’ voices offer a bridge for effective and considerate communication in urban forest practice that can help narrow the human/nature divide. Thus, by acknowledging the various under-represented stories with respect to language, labour, agency and learning, and by using these narratives as a means to filling that social gap, my hope is that urban forestry can become more integrated. This is how narratives can become powerful sources for integrative processes.

By using story and dialogue to understand how urban forestry workers feel and perceive, this offers a richer contextual description and data to better form decisions. By speaking with field arborists, observing and being on site, we get new meaning and perspective on the implications for policies and procedures. It is a richer, more holistic way of informing the field, and it is a way of reducing bias. This is particularly true because in my background research, I could not find studies in urban forestry research in Canada that interviewed and quoted field arborists on these socio-ecological issues.

Outdoor workers who deal with trees (i.e. living organisms) have many differing layers of complexity with which they contend and consider, both consciously and sub-consciously. Arborists navigate the urban forest differently by working under a unique system. It is true that workers obtain ISA certification and specialized skills, they read field manuals, and many embark on continuing education courses, which are all very important for professional development. However, to this end, arborists develop their own way of negotiating the forest that is not currently documented in texts; the lack of documentation must change, as their experiences are invaluable to the future of urban forestry.

Beyond identifying its usefulness and necessary perspective, and to better describe the paradigm shift that I am proposing, I offer a multi-modal conceptual framework using the anatomy of a tree. Stay tuned for Part 2 in the next issue of City Trees.


Doctoral Committee: Dr. L. Anders Sandberg, Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, Dr. Leesa Fawcett, Dr. Don Dippo


Bardekjian, A. (2016). How perspectives of field arborists and tree climbers are useful for understanding and managing urban forests. The Nature of Cities; March 24, 2016.

Bardekjian, A. (2015). Learning From Limbwalkers: Arborists’ Stories in Southern Ontario’s Urban Forests. (Accession No. 10315/30088) [Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Ontario]. YorkSpace.

Eisenhardt, K. (1989). Building theories from case study research. Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 532-550.

Jones, O., & Cloke, P. (2002). Tree cultures: The place of trees and trees in their place. New York, NY: Oxford.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Rangan, H., & Kull, C. (2009). What makes ecology ‘political’?: Rethinking ‘scale’ in political ecology. Progress in Physical Geography, 33(1), 28-45.

Robbins, P. (2004). Political ecology: A critical introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.


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