Feb 18, 2022

Realizing the Promise of Urban Wood

Photo of stacked planks of wood

In March 2020, Innovation Works received a grant to use and expand recent research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service and urban wood industry leaders in Baltimore. The research identified Baltimore as a unique indigenous resource center for reclaimed urban wood.

According to USDA research, more than 78,000 tons of urban wood (about 3,900 truckloads) are wasted in Baltimore every year. This project salvages wood from deconstructed abandoned rowhomes and from urban tree maintenance to create an urban wood industry that supports economic growth and employment opportunities.

When wood is treated as waste, it is a cost and a missed opportunity. It increases landfill waste and squanders opportunities for workforce and economic development. Reusing urban wood waste has many benefits, including:

  • Reducing landfill waste
  • Providing valuable, green materials for local production and consumption
  • Creating jobs that cannot be exported for those with barriers to employment
  • Improving ecosystems to support sustainability
  • Growing community economies
  • Creating revenues and reducing costs
  • Reducing crime and recidivism
  • Diversifying the U.S. wood supply
  • Providing model to be replicated in other communities
Baltimore’s unique asset

IW’s Urban Wood Strategic Initiative leverages Baltimore’s unique indigenous asset of urban wood to develop local value chains that establish Baltimore as a national market leader.

In Baltimore, there are officially 16,000 vacant and abandoned buildings, but unofficial estimates suggest there could be as many as 40,000.

Many were built over a century ago using virgin- or second-growth wood of native eastern deciduous forests from trees that were as old as 300-500 years when cut down.

Most Baltimore homes were built with virgin southern yellow pine. This old-growth wood is “extinct” in every practical sense. Fewer than 0.01% of old growth southern pine forests still exist and they will not be harvested for timber.

The size and quality of the wood from these old-growth trees is superior to today’s lumber, which is grown faster. This urban wood is denser, stronger, and more resistant to rot and termites. Most importantly, it is beautiful and rare.

Creating jobs

Deconstruction can create 6 to 8 times more jobs than demolition, according to USDA estimates. These jobs are well-suited for those with barriers to employment, like low education or previous incarceration. This employment opportunity provides an on-ramp to a career and supports positive feedback loops in communities. Ultimately, this helps reduce government costs and increase government revenues.

The wood is repurposed and resold locally, creating a closed loop system. Reclaimed and upcycled wood products are available for sustainable building, furniture, energy, and other uses.

Stronger communities

By applying IW’s model to the development of the urban wood markets, social enterprises in the industry will be deeply rooted in Baltimore’s niche market opportunities with sustainable, indigenous, competitive advantages that sustain local businesses and further IW’s mission to reduce the racial wealth divide in Baltimore’s economically distressed neighborhoods.

Lessons learned in Baltimore will provide a framework to develop a sustainable supply and demand for urban wood nationwide.

Wood accounts for more than 10% of the annual waste material in the U.S. This waste creates costs for municipalities, businesses, and taxpayers.

By salvaging urban wood, cities, businesses and communities can generate profits, reduce costs, and develop new revenue streams. Urban wood can help tackle the complex landscape of social, environmental, and economic challenges facing the city.

Learn more:

USDA: https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/how-baltimore-urban-wood-project-reclaiming-wood-lives-and-communities
Baltimore Wood Project http://baltimorewoodproject.org/
Urban Field Station Network https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/ufs/
Baltimore Urban Field Station https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/baltimore/
Case Studies and more https://www.learngala.com/cases/urbanwood  https://www.vibrantcitieslab.com/urban-wood-reuse/