Tahia Devisscher is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Forest Resources Management and focuses on how to manage forests and other green spaces in and around cities to support human well-being and build social-ecological resilience to climate change. She is interested in developing practical strategies to address the increasing disconnect between people and nature caused by rapid urbanization. The research coming from her team aims to inform nature recovery and nature-positive initiatives that foster clear synergies between climate resilience, biodiversity restoration, and human well-being in healthier urban and peri-urban landscapes.
Tell us about yourself and your background!
I was born in the highlands of Bolivia in the midst of Carnival dances and traditional blessings. With a Bolivian mother and a Belgian father, my upbringing has been supported by different cultures and world views. I was also exposed early in life to the passions of my parents who encouraged me to join them in their adventures. My mum nurtured in me a love for the arts, performance, spiritual wellness, and body expression. My dad shared with me his deep love for nature, and his unconditional commitment to work in partnership with local Indigenous communities and foster human development.
Perhaps because of my upbringing, I ended up cultivating an interdisciplinary background in my academic career. In my research projects, I usually develop integrated approaches by combining ecosystems sciences with social sciences and geospatial sciences to tackle climate change-related challenges. For me, this interest became clear when I was working on my Master’s thesis looking at how the expansion of oil palm plantations for biofuel production – driven by global climate change mitigation interests – was affecting local forests and livelihoods of Indigenous communities in Borneo, Malaysia. Currently, I apply social-ecological systems thinking to work on studies aimed at building climate resilience through nature-based solutions.
What led you to pursue this field of Social-Ecological Climate Resilience in Urban and Peri-Urban Landscapes?
I started working as a researcher in the field of climate adaptation in 2007. For ten years, I collaborated with local communities, government agencies, and different non-governmental organizations to develop ecosystem-based adaptation strategies at local and national levels. I did this while I was working as a research fellow with the Stockholm Environment Institute. My projects took me to more than 20 countries, mostly in the Global South. My interest in social-ecological climate resilience deepened during my PhD, which I completed at the Ecosystems Lab in the University of Oxford, UK. For my Ph.D., I studied wildfire in the context of climate change as a complex social-ecological problem in the Chiquitania region, southern Amazonia. Applying different disciplinary lenses and integrating methods from quantitative spatial modelling to participatory mapping, ecological surveys, and qualitative assessment and interviews, I developed adaptation strategies for wildfire risk management in the forested landscapes of the region. During my time in the field, I worked with various actors, including different Indigenous communities, and these adaptation strategies integrated technical and local traditional knowledge.
In 2017, I joined the Faculty of Forestry at UBC as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the intention to further advance social-ecological resilience studies using interdisciplinary approaches. I first started working with community forests in British Columbia and assessing innovative ways in which forests can be managed for resilience to multiple, cumulative disturbances associated with climate change. I also studied how community forests have contributed to social adaptative capacity over the past 20 years. During that time, I started to learn more about urban forestry, and I became fascinated by how research in urban landscapes can benefit from social-ecological systems thinking because the feedback between social and ecological processes can be much shorter in the context of cities. I obtained a Banting Fellowship to pursue my new interest in this context and my first project involved studying the change in ecological function and ecosystem services provided by forests along an urban-rural gradient in Maple Ridge, a fast-sprawling city in British Columbia. I also studied how people perceived the benefits from and engaged with forests along this urbanization gradient. In Vancouver, I worked with colleagues to develop a novel index to assess and map the distribution of local restorative nature (i.e. nature that supports the restoration of mental well-being), in relationship to vulnerable groups across the city who need it the most. Since then, my collaborations in urban forestry and people-nature interactions in the context of climate change have expanded with studies spreading to other regions of the world, notably Latin America and more recently Europe.
What do you hope to achieve through your work here at UBC?
In my new position as an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Forestry, I envision a program of research that supports the development of urban and peri-urban nature recovery strategies that can simultaneously contribute to climate resilience, biodiversity restoration, and human well-being. Many recent urban greening and tree planting initiatives have a short-term approach and narrow focus on tree numbers and carbon, missing a significant opportunity to have many other synergistic outcomes. What is worse, this myopic approach can unintentionally increase the future vulnerability of people and nature. My research team will address this problem by adopting a more integrated approach and looking for ways to diversify the function of urban nature and multiply shared benefits. My first project is starting at home by adopting the ‘Campus as a Living Lab’ concept. I will be building on the data my students and I have been collecting over the past five years – with support from SEEDS and Campus & Community Planning – as we measured and inventoried all trees across the academic campus. My second project will systematically assess the multiple effects of a large-scale urban greening initiative recently launched in Barcelona, Spain which transformed a 7-km high-traffic avenue and replaced it with a green corridor for social use. Taking a holistic approach in the context of an ex-ante and ex-post analysis, I will be studying the effects of this transformation on climate resilience, biodiversity and human well-being, and generate insights that can inform how to improve the design and effectiveness of a more holistic nature positive initiatives in the future. The timing is crucial, as global interest in nature recovery and nature-based solutions is rapidly growing in cities and rural areas alike.
What attracted you to UBC and UBC Forestry?
The Faculty of Forestry is not only world-renown for forest ecosystem science and management, but it is also a place where interdisciplinarity and urban forestry are gaining a lot of attention and growing rapidly. In addition, UBC Forestry fosters collaboration, research excellence and a healthy work environment. All of this aligned with my interests and values. Building on this, one of the initiatives I was given the opportunity to coordinate for about four years at UBC Forestry is the Urban Forests Research Hub. This network supported scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds in UBC Forestry to work together on a shared vision to create resilient and healthy cities by enhancing the ways in which people understand, access, plan and manage urban forests.
In addition to research, what are you most looking forward to in the Faculty of Forestry?
In addition to research, I am looking forward to reconnecting with the community of brilliant minds and caring scholars at the Faculty of Forestry. I felt very welcomed and supported on the path to this position, and I feel very grateful for each step along the way. Being in our Faculty has allowed me to stay inspired and connected to meaningful collaborations, research, and practice. It is (still) not easy for an interdisciplinary scholar to find a home, and I am proud to say that UBC Forestry has created and set the intention to further promote a space for interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinary to grow. I am excited to participate in this and advance research and teaching in this context while creating more fruitful partnerships. If not in stimulating meeting rooms, on Zoom screens, or in the beautiful atrium of our building, perhaps you may find me guiding a yoga class outdoors, taking some of you to forest therapy walks, or facilitating holistic academic retreats where connection, wellness, and impactful research ideas can find a space to come together and evolve in nature. Whatever the case may be, I hope to see you around and have the opportunity to share.