The writer is founder and chief executive of the Arbor Day Foundation.
Americans have a history of persevering through tough economic times to leave legacies of stewardship.
Construction of New York City’s Central Park progressed through the Civil War, and during the Great Depression, networks of public parks and forests were expanded. Lives and lands were healed, and countless trees were planted whose shade we continue to enjoy.
A similar spirit exists today, as committed advocates support professional urban forestry programs that yield numerous benefits for all of us. While Arbor Day only comes around in April, these organizations, individuals and companies are making a strong economic and human case for trees throughout the year. Forward-looking cities are taking notice and continuing to make needed investments in tree planting and care.
“Given a limited budget, the most effective expenditure of funds to improve a street would probably be on trees,” wrote Allan Jacobs, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, in his book “Great Streets.”
Chicago, for example, receives $2.3 billion in benefits from its urban trees, and the city’s 2.7 million residents are actively engaged in improving and increasing tree canopy. The Green Streets program has supported the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees and millions of flowers and perennials, reversing a trend of urban tree loss and serving as a model for others.
Tree canopy in Houston removes 60,575 tons of air pollutants every year, for a value of $300 million. Putting a dollar value on shade from trees during a 100-degree summer is trickier, but it is fair to say that city trees are crucial to Texans’ quality of life and in everyone’s interest to support.
The 200,000 trees on the University of California, San Diego, campus forest remove 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere every year, helping to reduce total campus emissions by 5 percent in a heavily populated and auto-reliant metropolitan area.
As cities face scare resources and sluggish economies, discussion often turns toward saving money through reducing professional forestry staff. Our experience growing the Tree City USA program into more than 3,400 communities over 37 years leads us to conclude that these policies do not result in long-term savings.
With professional staffs, cities are able to take a comprehensive approach by negotiating for work on the entire tree canopy, as opposed to a piecemeal and inefficient approach that varies by neighborhood and household.
Indeed, the value of an urban forestry dollar is far-reaching:
>> Trees save energy. According to the U.S. Forest Service, trees properly placed around homes can reduce monthly electricity bills by up to 30 percent.
>> Trees reduce municipal costs. An urban forest of 10,000 trees will retain 10 million gallons of rainwater per year, improving stormwater management and reducing wear and tear.
>> Trees improve public health. Medical patients with a view of trees rather than a wall have been found to spend fewer post-operative days in the hospital. Trees also encourage outdoor activities like walking and bicycling, either for recreation or to get to school or work.
>> Trees boost local economies. Communities with ample tree life attract more homeowners and professionals, and they experience a 10 percent-to-20 percent rise in property values. Retail areas with more trees draw more shoppers who stay longer.
Increasingly, jobs and the companies and professionals who create them are highly mobile. According to the National Association of Realtors, 62 percent of Americans consider mature trees an important part of their neighborhoods. The successful cities of the future will be those that recruit and retain the best jobs by nurturing an outstanding quality of life for their citizenry, which includes a well-managed urban forest.
Trees are part of the public infrastructure, just like roads, sidewalks and bridges. But unlike these other pieces of infrastructure, trees actually appreciate in value over time.
Community leaders have stepped up and made needed investments during difficult times in the past. Arbor Day turns 141 this year. We ought to stand up for our urban forests once again.