Trees in our cities

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: The Sunday Times

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 12 Sep 2020

Credit: Rosie Kinchen, Anna Lombardi, Anthony Cappaert, Julian Osbaldstone, Sam Joiner

Project description:

“I found a database of all 8.3m trees in London!” And so our project on the UK’s urban forests began. 

We spoke to individuals and groups working in their free time – often unpaid – to help preserve and manage our trees and stories of their efforts delighted readers. 

Using detailed open source data we looked into the most common species in different UK cities, revealed the greenest and explained how council budgets have shrunk over time and the impact that is having on our ability to maintain our urban forests.

Impact reached:

This project aimed to tell an important story while offering our readers a visually compelling article to lift spirits during the first national lockdown, at a time when the news agenda was dominated by daily Covid-19 updates. 

Trees were on our minds during the lockdown. Whether it was the comfort of nature or simply having the time to stop and look, we flocked to urban parks. Treetalk.co.uk, a website that creates personalised tree walks around London, saw a sixfold increase in users as the lockdown wore on.

Even before this there was a growing acceptance that city trees play a vital role in physical and mental health. Studies have found that access to trees and grass reduces violent crime and domestic aggression, and that students who walk for 45 minutes in an arboretum perform 20% better than those who walk on urban streets.

Combining the data visualisation skills of Anna Lombardi, Anthony Cappaert and Julian Osbaldestone with Rosie Kinchen’s reporting we were able to explain why our need for city trees is deep-rooted, the important role trees play in our physical and mental health and investigate whether we are doing enough to keep them safe for future generations.

The illustrative skills of Julian Osbaldestone enabled us to bring the story to life in a way befitting of the topic, with data and line drawings combined in a style rarely seen in the digital or print pages of the Times and Sunday Times. 

The article scored highly on our engagement metrics, received a very positive feedback from our readers in the comment section and over-performed with our target audiences (women and younger readers). It performed well on social media too.

Techniques/technologies used:

We gathered open source data on the exact location, species and type of tree in five major UK cities: London, Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh and Sheffield. CSV files for each city were imported, cleaned, made consistent and analysed in RStudio. 

For each city we identified the most populous trees which were then drawn four times – once for each season — so readers could identify them throughout the year. A watercolour technique has been chosen to give a fresher touch to it.

Next we ran a bespoke R script that allowed us to convert the details of each trees’ geographic position into geojson files. This data was then imported into the mapping tool QGIS along with shapefiles of each city’s boundaries. The two were then merged to create a map locating every tree to a specific point. 

A colour was then applied to each tree type before the map was annotated and finessed in Illustrator.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Open data is crucial for journalists and researchers to investigate and explore a variety of issues and topics. Very often, though, it’s difficult to find homogeneous datasets for different areas, making a national comparison impossible. One of the most difficult parts of this project was to find comparable data sources of public trees for various UK cities. 

It all started when we came across a huge dataset featuring every tree in London, which definitely had some potential to be turned into a nice visual project but we wanted to expand our horizons outside the capital. 

We got in touch with several local councils and got hold of data for a few other cities (namely Bristol, Belfast, Edinburgh and Sheffield). From councils, we also gathered information about tree maintenance regimes, budgets and diversity planting plans. One of the strengths of this project is its unique mix of meticulous digital analysis/mapping of granular geographical data and in-depth reporting on the ground, which is what really brings it to life. 

We spent quite some time discussing the best way to visualise the data so that readers could get key information while enjoying such a long visual piece. We wanted to add an artistic touch to our usual visualization style, aware that getting the right balance between data and illustration was going to be crucial.

It has been a really interesting and thoughtful creative process that involved different expertises coming together and the experimentation of a new style rarely seen in the digital or print pages of the Sunday Times before, a great example of collaboration across the newsroom. 

What can others learn from this project?

  • Using a programming language such as R to analyse data allows you to work with a clear script that can be easily tweaked and re-run for last minute changes in the data
  • Don’t rely on one software to create visuals as a mix of tools often leads to the best results (in our case it was RStudio, QGIS, Datawrapper and Illustrator)
  • Data-led investigations are hugely powerful, but even more so when combined with more traditional mediums for reporting. It was the discovery of the dataset locating every tree in London that kickstarted this project, but Rosie Kinchen’s reporting and Julian Osbaldestone’s illustrations that really brought it to life 


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