The Urban Forest Loses a Giant: Mourning the Loss of Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne

The urban forestry community lost a giant with the sudden passing of Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne on January 6. Jarlath led a globally respected lab that used high-resolution imagery of the earth to map land cover in our complex urban landscapes at fine level of detail with astounding accuracy.

The work of Jarlath’s Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Vermont was the gold standard that researchers, governments, and non-profit organizations sought when quantifying and mapping urban tree canopy for their communities. Los Angeles County was fortunate to have received not only the services of the lab, but also Jarlath’s work on a full assessment of Los Angeles’s tree canopy. A summary of the assessment and a video of his presentation on it, given at the TreePeople Conference Center, can be found here. Over the past 6 years, the available data has become ubiquitous and can be found in dozens of applications. TreePeople continues to receive regular requests to share the data for new public serving projects.

Dexter Locke, research geographer with the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and dear friend and colleague of Jarlath’s, describes Jarlath and his impact:

Jarlath embodied the ethos of service. Through his pioneering work on urban landcover classification systems, and later UAS (colloquially known as drones), he gave tirelessly and selflessly while honing his craft. He was a keen translator of massive data into actionable intelligence and usable insights for a variety of end users and key decision makers. Jarlath’s leadership style could be described as compassion on full blast, complete with lighthearted and frequently self-deprecating humor. Jarlath’s legacy can be seen through the hundreds of spatial analysts he trained in pushing the frontier of mapped data. Jarlath’s humility and excellence will not be forgotten. It is no exaggeration that Jarlath changed the course of my life for the better.

Michele Romolini, Managing Director at LMU’s Center for Urban Resilience – another dear friend and colleague of Jarlath’s who worked on LA’s Tree Canopy Assessment – describes the impact the data has had on Los Angeles:

Jarlath’s work has had a major influence on how we understand and act to create equity in urban forestry in Los Angeles. He supported our efforts to produce high resolution tree canopy data for LA since I arrived from Vermont in 2013. Since Jarlath’s team completed the LA County Tree Canopy Assessment in 2019, the tree canopy data viewer has been accessed about 60,000 times and the data have been used by 50+ known projects, including the development of the County’s Sustainability Plan and in various projects examining equitable distribution of canopy-related variables such as shade and biodiversity. This includes LMU and TreePeople’s work in the Gateway Cities of Southeast LA to bring this powerful data into the hands of city agencies and community members to develop collective priorities for planting trees in their communities. Jarlath was always generous with his knowledge and time, willing to answer questions and provide guidance to pretty much anyone who asked. He stayed positive and provided humor through challenging times and was really just a joy to know. We will miss him greatly.

Jarlath was a treasured partner to TreePeople and had recently chatted with our team about developing new tree canopy maps for LA. Jarlath shared an important nuance of the data – the urban forest grows in small increments, with each tree expanding a little each year, hardly noticeable, and difficult to capture with current technology. In a way, immeasurable. The loss of a big tree, however, is stark and impossible to miss on the map.

The loss of Jarlath is impactful on the community, likewise leaving an impossible void. But Jarlath’s humanity, his vibrancy, and his passion for the work touched thousands of people – some directly, some through the amazing datasets that he was so instrumental in creating. His legacy, like the urban forest, will grow a little each year: through the people and projects he inspired–the cumulative impact of which is surely immeasurable.

Upon his passing, each community that Jarlath was a part of is finding that across all dimensions of his life, he was a mainstay pillar known for excellence, good humor, and humility. More a richer accounting of Jarlath’s life, a beautiful remembrance was written by his Nordic club community. Jarlath’s obituary is published in the Burlington Free Press. Finally, Jarlath’s family has set up a University of Vermont Foundation fund to carry on his legacy.

By Dustin Herrmann

Principal Scientist