When it Comes to Climate and Cities, Trees Keep Giving

City leaders are constantly on the lookout for programs that can be implemented to improve the lives of residents in their communities. While cost restrictions, political considerations, and logistical constraints are always limiting factors, there is one simple climate solution that seems to bypass all such obstacles: trees. Increasing tree canopy coverage is a simple, low-cost solution that improves communities by enlisting residents to green their neighborhoods, while bringing health, economic, and environmental benefits to cities.

Why Trees

Trees are a simple way to improve city life in a number of important and unexpected ways. Research has shown that cities that have adopted tree-planting programs have seen correlation linking more trees to decreases in crime. Tree-lined streets increase property values for residents, and communities with green spaces, gardens, and parks have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety—increasing the happiness and quality of life for residents.

There are also important health benefits. Trees help filter pollutants out of the air we breathe. Studies have found that trees, especially old growth canopies, can affect both local air quality and the quality of air throughout the region. There are also economic benefits to be had, such as decreased energy bills. Shadier cities can reduce the cooling costs for residents and business owners—especially in hot, arid regions where energy costs may be burdensome.

And perhaps most importantly, increasing tree canopy in cities is an effective climate solution. Lower electricity use due to increased shade, cooler temperatures, and less of a need to run an A/C drives down the amount of fossil fuel consumption. Trees, vegetation, and urban green zones help to catch rainfall and prevent rainwater runoff that can damage city infrastructure and clog storm drains. This is increasingly a concern as weather patterns change, and severe weather events become more common. Recent flooding in Louisiana provides an insight into just what the future may hold as the consequences of climate change become more pronounced.

To reap these benefits, cities must beef up their commitment to urban canopies. Research now suggests that nearly half of urban areas must be covered to enjoy the full scope of what trees can bring to communities. Fortunately, many cities are already pursuing bold new initiatives to increase the number of trees in their communities.

What Cities Can Do

For many cities, simply preserving their local forests and urban canopy can bring much-needed dollars to city coffers. In Oregon, for instance, the city of Astoria pledged to protect a 3,700-acre watershed as part of a statewide carbon credit program. By preserving the local forest//trees/…, the city was able to receive over $350,000 in their first year, and $130,000 for the next nine as part of the carbon credit program. These are dollars that can be put to use reinvesting in community development, infrastructure, and city services.

“Together, we’re building our better neighborhoods, and projects like this are how we do it.” Mayor Faulconer, San Diego

Cities can also promote and facilitate the greening of communities. The city of Seattle this year is relaunching its reLeaf program, which aims to increase the canopy cover from 23 to 30% over the next two decades. Already successful in planting 6,300 trees, the program also offers information on tree maintenance, care, pruning, and free trees and mulch for participants. Such programs are a relatively cheap and effective way to bring communities together with the shared purpose of beautifying their neighborhoods while implementing effective climate solutions.

Like Seattle, in Los Angeles, several public-private partnerships have sprouted to continue a program launched nearly a decade ago, Million Trees LA. Now, in an effort to bring the benefits of trees to low-canopy communities, groups like City Plants provide free fruit and shade trees to neighborhoods throughout the city. Educational opportunities including tree care, mulching and planting techniques are being provided by groups like Tree People—who focus on increasing green spaces and urban forests. Organizations like the LA Conservation Corps are training young Angelinos to be the next climate leaders through tree planting and more. These efforts enlist the help of residents, students, businesses, and nonprofits—reflecting the importance of community-based solutions to community problems.

Tree planting programs are simple climate solutions for any city. Whether run entirely by a city department, facilitated through public-private partnerships, or entirely left to the nonprofit sector, they bring countless benefits for residents. As a mayor or community leader, you can encourage and implement these programs by effectively communicating the benefits of increased canopy coverage in your city. You can begin by checking out the well-researched and tested climate communication techniques at ecoAmerica, or our 15 step guide at Path to Positive Communities.

Stuart Wood is a writer at Path to Positive Communities and an adjunct professor. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, where he focused on climate change, political communications and psychology. Email him at stuart@ecoamerica.org.

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