Healthy Trees are Key to Vibrant Communities

March 1, 2014, Department, by Carrie Gallagher

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, host a National Neighborwoods Month tree planting.Go to any city park, and what will you see? If it’s in a neighborhood with young families, no doubt there will be lots of kids running around and playing. Across town, elderly residents may be taking a stroll or playing chess or checkers. Others might be enjoying an oasis of calm in the middle of a busy day or cooking out on a warm summer evening. Whether for recreation, relaxation or just gathering with friends, parks meet different needs in different communities.

But one thing most parks have in common — from a pocket park tightly packed between row houses to an Olmsted expanse in a central city — is trees. Just as well-built and well-tended parks are the key to any great city, healthy and abundant trees are the key to great parks. 

Most people intuitively understand this, but thanks to the work of a national task force, we now have a better understanding of the full value of trees, plus a communications and policy blueprint that helps explain their value to communities and transforms the way we think about them. 

The Vibrant Cities and Urban Forests Task Force was convened by New York Restoration Project with support from the USDA Forest Service. The task force consisted of 25 national experts representing fields such as urban forestry, urban planning, landscape architecture and community organizing, and its diverse membership ranged from government officials to business leaders.

These experts examined all the factors that make a community a vibrant place to live and developed strategies that a city of any size could adopt for getting there. The final report, Vibrant Cities & Urban Forests: A National Call to Action, outlined 12 specific recommendations for growing better, healthier communities through a renewed commitment to our urban forests.

For parks, along with the people who love them and the professionals who manage them, the report could be summed up as a call to focus on the fundamentals: Parks are first and foremost dynamic ecosystems, built predominantly around healthy trees. The report makes clear that this approach is not only right for parks, but prioritizing the role of trees also has a positive ripple effect throughout entire communities.

Trees can reduce energy consumption and promote conservation by helping to cool homes and businesses on hot days. According to joint studies by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, trees planted to shade the windows of a home can generate energy savings of up to 47 percent (Heat Islands).

Trees have a known and quantifiable positive effect on both the causes and impacts of climate change. A single tree stores an average of 13 pounds of carbon each year, and community forests currently provide the equivalent of $22 billion in carbon control costs (Identified Benefits). Trees naturally reduce flooding and help keep pollutants out of our waterways, which decreases the need for costly treatment facilities. 

Inviting open spaces like parks also help keep people healthy. A community designed with sidewalks and accessible green space has a dramatically positive impact on the amount of physical activity people incorporate into their daily lives. Investing in tree-filled public spaces is an investment in public health (A Bridge to Planners). 

Combining all the positive attributes of trees, one study in Baltimore, Maryland, calculated that each tree provides about $57,000 in economic and environmental benefits over its lifetime (Baltimore’s Trees). 

While the dollars are impressive, organizations like Alliance for Community Trees demonstrate that trees can play an equally important role in bringing communities together. Since 1993, Alliance for Community Trees has worked with groups across the country to plant and care for more than 15 million neighborhood trees. And each tree contributes to the story of communities coming together.

When neighbors join forces to plant trees, they are at the same time strengthening bonds with one another and participating in community building. When residents in a neglected corner of a city band together to unleash the transformative power of trees and parks in their neighborhoods, their efforts can serve as a catalyst to spark a sense of community empowerment that extends to other core quality-of-life issues like schools, social services and economic development.

Last October, for example, more than 26,000 volunteers got their hands dirty during Alliance for Community Trees’ National NeighborWoods Month 2013, planting 50,000 trees at events in all 50 states. More than 250 local nonprofit organizations, public agencies and other partners in hundreds of communities joined together to plant, care for and educate about trees. In all, volunteers participated in more than 900 events throughout the month. 

Each year, the 50,000 trees planted during National NeighborWoods Month are estimated to capture 21.4 million gallons of stormwater runoff, dispose of more than 610 tons of air pollutants, and save cities almost $500,000 in stormwater management and air pollution costs. In 2013, Americans contributed more than 78,000 volunteer hours during National NeighborWoods Month, a value of $1.7 million.

Trees motivate volunteers to take action. Cities and citizens recognize that trees are important capital assets that provide tangible economic benefits. That’s why more communities are focused on growing and caring for their city’s tree canopy as an important part of a sustainable future.

At the end of the day, trees are about connections. All the trees dotting different parts of a city connect to make an urban forest and collective tree canopy for communities of all sizes. Similarly, groups like Alliance for Community Trees and NRPA connect through an umbrella organization called the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition to advocate on a national scale for healthy urban forests and vibrant neighborhoods.

Equipped with the right information and the appropriate perspectives, residents and policymakers can connect to ensure that the trees in our parks get the care and attention that they need from us so that we take full advantage of all the benefits they provide.

Trees and urban parks are the key!


A Bridge to Planners

Baltimore’s Trees

Identified Benefits of Community Trees and Forests

Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies

Carrie Gallagher is the Executive Director of Alliance for Community Trees.