UT Survey Shows Little Difference Between City, County Residents’ Attitudes on Tree Regulations

KNOXVILLE — A survey of homeowners throughout Knox County shows a significant level of interest and concern about maintaining tree coverage in the face of ongoing development.

The survey was conducted by Kim Davis in the University of Tennessee’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE) and Robert E. Jones, an associate professor in UT’s Department of Sociology.

“Our study shows that Knox County homeowners are very knowledgeable about the local urban forest and the care of trees,” said Davis, assistant director of programs and outreach for ISSE. “This is a unique look at opinions on the topic countywide.”

Tree issues are becoming more prevalent nationwide as urban and suburban development continues in cities around the country. While Knoxville is recognized as a “tree city” by the Arbor Day foundation, Knox County as a whole lost more than two percent of its tree coverage between 1989 and 1999 alone, according to a study by the conservation group American Forests.

One notable finding of the survey, which was sent to 2400 homeowners across Knox County, was that there was no difference between city residents and those living outside city limits when it comes to their attitudes about legislation controlling tree protection and management.

The city of Knoxville has an extensive tree-planting program along with a tree ordinance that prevents cutting more than 25 percent of the trees on an undeveloped lot over a five-year span. In contrast, Knox County has no legislation governing how trees should be cleared in the process of developing land.

Davis had heard about the Knoxville/Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission’s work with focus groups and community meetings to get input from homeowners on their opinions about tree policy. She applied for the funding to conduct the study from a Tennessee Department Agriculture grant program that supports urban forestry research, in order assist in obtaining scientifically reliable data from homeowners.

The survey examined residents’ knowledge about and experience with tree care, attitudes toward local tree-related issues, level of support for local tree policies, awareness of local tree issues, and attitudes and willingness to support tree protection proposals.

Among respondents, newcomers to the Knoxville area showed a greater tendency to support governmental involvement in tree protection and maintenance. This supports previous research conducted by Jones and his colleagues that found a majority of newcomers to the region came because of its environment and protecting the environment remains a high priority for them.

“Knox County homeowners support having tougher requirements for commercial and residential developers to protect and plant trees,” said Davis. “However, survey respondents were less supportive of having stricter rules about what they do with trees in their yards.”
Jones also noted the balance that environmental planners face in dealing with these issues.

“There will always be concerns about the level of legislation needed for a reasonable amount of environmental protection while also meeting economic expectations of a community, and this survey reflected that,” said Jones.

Women and people who had previous involvement with environmental organizations also tended to be more supportive of governmental efforts to preserve trees.

Few of the respondents — only about seven percent — were aware of the Knoxville Tree Board’s efforts, begun in the 1990s, to increase tree planting or about the board’s recent work in exploring plans to expand county oversight of trees.

Davis and Jones have been asked to conduct similar surveys in Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga in hopes of developing a baseline understanding of public opinion on urban tree issues statewide.

From the eligible respondents, 976 surveys were completed and returned, representing a 42 percent response rate. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. Funding for the survey came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry, and ISSE.


Contacts:

Jay Mayfield, media relations (865-974-9409, jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu)

Kim Davis, ISSE (865-974-1847, kdavis17@utk.edu)

Robert Jones, Sociology (965-974-7017, mountain@utk.edu)