Trees Play a Key Role in a Sustainable Urban Future

By Heather Doucet

Though trees aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about city living, urban forests are integral to ensuring and enhancing the quality of life in densely populated areas. Trees and green spaces provide a range of environmental and social benefits that can address some of the most persistent issues facing our cities today, from health and well-being, to social and economic indicators and equity, to resilience and climate change. Indeed, with more than two-thirds of the world’s population projected to be living in urban environments by 2050, the future of urban forestry and the future of the very livability of our cities are inextricably intertwined. What’s more, innovative projects and organizations in cities across the country can show the way to other communities looking to harness the power of trees for a more sustainable future.

What Trees Bring to Cities

While it’s fairly intuitive that trees are a positive, concerns about maintenance costs and other considerations can sometimes counter the notion in people’s mind that “trees are good.” Fortunately, there is plenty of strong evidence to support a significant investment in trees for a variety of reasons.

Improving Health and Well-Being

Urban trees remove over 710,000 tons of air pollution per year in the U.S., which has a major impact on fighting respiratory illnesses like asthma. Trees also filter up to 80% of phosphorus out of stormwater before it pollutes waterways and drinking water. And tree canopy shade, along with evapotranspiration (the return of water vapor from trees and vegetation back to the atmosphere), can lower peak temperatures by 2°-9°F—a key tool in combating the heat island effect present in many cities, which disproportionately impacts lower-income neighborhoods and other vulnerable populations.

Enhancing Neighborhoods

By providing inviting gathering spaces, grass cover and trees can strengthen ties between neighbors, encourage healthy children’s play, and discourage crime. In New Haven, CT, for example, a ten percent increase in tree canopy was associated with a 15 percent decrease in violent crime. Mature trees also add an average of 10 percent to a property’s value, according to a Forest Service survey.

Boosting the Economy

Sustaining a healthy urban forest—tree planting and care, managing community gardens and parks—provides direct skilled career opportunities, and is a growing field, with members of organizations like the Sustainable Urban Forest Coalition implementing workforce development and educational programs to encourage careers in urban forestry. Green industries contribute 1.6 million jobs, $82 billion in payroll, and $196 billion in sales to the U.S. economy. Trees also provide other economic benefits—for instance, workers in office buildings with views of trees report increased productivity and overall job satisfaction, while shoppers in business districts with robust tree canopy will spend 9 percent to 12 percent more for products.

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