Ryerson mobile app encourages interaction with Toronto trees

Researchers at Ryerson are moving education to the outdoors in an immersive way with the development of a mobile app about Toronto’s urban forest.

Called Parktrees.ca, the app was created with the goal of inspiring increased stewardship for city trees. It fosters education by allowing users to learn ecological and environmental information about a specific tree or city park.

Led by Ryerson geography professor Andrew Millward, the project aims 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.” Millward is also the principal investigator with Ryerson’s Urban Forestry Research and Ecological Disturbance (UFRED) group.

“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.ca database,” Millward said in an email.


Dr. Andrew Millward, geography professor at Ryerson. Courtesy Ryerson University

Built from a complete inventory of all the trees found on campus, Parktrees.ca shows each tree on an online map that can be filtered according to a specific set of data. Users can interact with the app by rating a tree’s condition — providing verification that the tree is actually there in addition to giving an update on its general well-being.

Nikesh Bhagat, a Ryerson alumnus and web developer who designed the app’s online interface, said he was first drawn to the project for its connections to social responsibility and environmental accountability.

The app helps the public learn about urban forests and how they contribute to the environment. “(Parktrees.ca) offers a more relatable platform for people to engage with and learn about the trees they encounter every day … (It is) important when it comes to the care and maintenance of trees, as well as developing a heightened awareness of our environmental footprints.”

And Toronto’s urban forest is indeed worth learning about.

According to a study commissioned by Toronto’s parks, forestry and recreation department, city trees generate the equivalent of about $60 million a year in ecological services, whether through reducing energy costs by providing shade for buildings, or blocking adverse weather. Urban Toronto trees also store over a million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which amounts to the emissions of over 700,000 vehicles.

Although still in prototype form, Parktrees.ca is accessible on any mobile data device. It includes all the trees found at Ryerson, Grange Park located near the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Earlscourt Park, near St. Clair and Lansdowne.

There are plans for expansion in the works.

“We are pursuing funding that would allow us to expand the functionality of the app, as well as its geographic reach,” Millward said.

Ultimately, Millward’s research team would like to see Parktrees.ca available for use across southern Ontario and eventually beyond.


This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 10, 2014.

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