When it’s hot out, which parking spaces do we seek first? Those with trees, naturally.
Trees are a vital component of healthy urban communities, providing a multitude of benefits, including shade and cooling on summer days. They also provide clean air and water, wildlife habitat, beauty and curb appeal, psychological well-being and even higher property values.
Some people believe that trees in cities are only there to beautify the built environment. If they are healthy, trees do beautify those spaces. However, a city’s trees provide far more than aesthetics. What are some of the ways a healthy urban canopy benefits our neighborhoods and communities?
Reducing energy consumption
These warm summer days are a great time to appreciate how much trees can help us with energy reduction. On hot days, you may still end up using your air conditioner. But having a well-placed tree can reduce how much the air conditioner needs to work to cool your home. Deciduous trees planted on the south, west and east sides of a lot create welcome shade during the hottest months of summer. During winter months, evergreens planted on the north or west sides of your property can reduce winter heating costs by serving as windbreaks.
Air pollution control is another way trees help improve livability in our urban environments, as trees are fairly effective at removing dust, pollen, soot and other irritants from the air.
Trees also reduce storm water runoff and erosion management costs by intercepting, storing and using rainfall. Local governments are increasingly looking toward non-built storm water management strategies — including trees — to reduce the cost of constructing storm water control infrastructure.
Healthy trees are also a good advertisement for a city’s livability. If a city’s trees are well-cared for, visitors will sense that the city takes care of its residents, too.
How about economic contributions? Studies have documented that the mere presence of healthy trees encourages shoppers to spend more money in tree-lined business districts. In addition, urban trees often have substantial monetary values. Research in Portland, for example, found that street trees planted between the sidewalk and road slightly decrease time spent on the market and raise home sales prices. Local governments capture some of this monetary value, since enhanced property values increase the tax base.
Is it expensive to maintain a strong tree program? When maintenance is shown as a percentage of value, the cost of tree management should compare favorably with the costs of maintaining streets, sewers, and other assets. Over time, records should show that trees grow in value, while most other urban assets decline in value.
Public safety does sometimes come into play. For example, you don’t want the trees you plant to cause people to trip over lifted sidewalks. For this reason, avoid small sidewalk cutouts. Give tree roots plenty of room, and avoid sweetgums, beeches, flowering cherry, red and Norway maples and some species of ash in areas where pedestrian traffic is high.
Lastly, a quick summer reminder: Make sure the trees around your home or business get plenty of water during warm summer months. If leaves start curling around the edges or turning brown, that’s indicative of poor tree care. Avoid health problems caused by drought; use weekly deep watering techniques, including the use of a soaker hose under the drip line of the tree.
In short, since trees make such important contributions to our quality of life and the sustainability of our cities, a properly managed, healthy urban forest is money well-spent and a good indicator of a healthy community. Investments such as time, money and good-quality tree care will repay your community many times over.
Cynthia Orlando has a degree in forest management and is a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.