Urban Wood Utilization and Industrial Clusters

Lead Author: Dr. Steve Bratkovich

Publish date: 05.20.2010


A Twin Cities Case Study

Today there are about 4 billion urban trees in the U.S., with another 70 billion growing in metropolitan areas. As urban land in the U.S. expands, so do the urban forests. Urban land in the lower 48 states increased from 2.5% of total land area in 1990 to 3.1% in 2000, an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Researchers from the U.S. Forest Service project that urban land in the coterminous U.S. will nearly triple in size to over 8% by 2050, an area larger than the state of Montana.


The number of trees, and hence the volume of wood, removed annually from our nation’s urban forests is significant. Estimates of removal (due to pests, wind storms, construction, hazard trees, etc.) range from 16 to 38 million green tons per year. Even the lower value of these estimates is comparable to total annual harvests from America’s National Forests.


Although the utilization of urban trees for wood and paper products is occurring only sporadically, there are signs that momentum is increasing. Community officials, wood-using industries, arborists, tree care firms, researchers, public agencies, non-profit organizations, and others are devoting additional resources and new initiatives to convert urban “waste” wood to useful products.


Nationally, the U.S. Forest Service, State and Private Forestry, has developed publications, case studies, and educational programs, as well as provided financial support for demonstration projects on urban wood use. The Ash Utilization Options project—spearheaded by the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council—is one example of a regional effort (created after the discovery of the emerald ash borer) to promote better utilization of urban trees. Numerous wood-using industries and entrepreneurs—including, as examples, CitiLog in New Jersey, Horigan Urban Forest Products in Illinois, and Pacific Coast Lumber in California —have expanded or created new businesses in recent years based on converting urban trees to value-added products. Even local construction projects in numerous communities—Cross Plains, Wisconsin and Ann Arbor, Michigan as examples—have featured urban tree “take downs” in products such as flooring, paneling, benches, tables and chairs.  Also, select communities such as Lompoc, California have ramped up efforts to use all or a portion of their tree removals for a variety of products including mulch, biomass (for energy), animal bedding, specialty products and lumber. Augmenting these initiatives are a variety of books, videos, conferences, art exhibits and partnerships, all of which have been developed during the past decade with a specific focus on urban wood use.


All of these urban wood utilization efforts are important and praiseworthy for their environmental and economic benefits for local communities. Many do an excellent job of focusing on one or more key elements needed to create awareness and sustain activities of an urban wood utilization project such as education, financing, or entrepreneurship. Each specific effort has the potential for replication or use in other areas throughout the country.


Another approach for planning and developing a broad-based community-wide urban wood utilization program is to base the effort on a “big picture” (comprehensive) model or proven business or economic development strategy that includes many or all key elements for success. One such strategy or model that could be used as a template for building an urban or community based wood utilization program is the notion of “industry clusters”.


This report focuses on an emerging urban wood-based industrial (business) cluster in the Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) metropolitan area. Examples of Twin Cities’ cluster-based wood utilization activities and corresponding cluster-building techniques are highlighted. Recommendations for advancing wood utilization activities on a community-wide basis are offered.


The work upon which this publication is based was funded in whole or in part through a grant awarded by the Wood Education and Resource Center, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (Award number 09-DG-089).