The Importance of Urban and Community Forests During Summer Storm Season

Natural disasters have a tendency to be intrusive in the least of welcome places. A city can never be fully equipped to combat the consequences of such devastation. As the anniversary of the destructive floods that overtook parts of Colorado approaches, we reflect on what communities can do to reduce the economic and environmental scars left behind from such disasters.

Tree Line StA dense tree canopy can help reduce flooding during times of heavy rain. The Tree City USA program serves as a practical guideline for cities desiring to maintain a healthy community and urban forest.

Trees serve as sponges during rainfall, soaking up rainwater. So when there are fewer trees there is more stormwater runoff. When shrubs and trees are planted along waterways they slow down flood waters, filter runoff from land, and reduce erosion in erosion-prone rivers. Check out our Trees Tame Stormwater interactive poster for a visual of how much a robust tree canopy helps a city during a storm.

Without trees, the rivers would eat away at adjoining property and fill reservoirs with silt. In addition, untreated sewage can flow into waterways, contaminating water supply and destroying natural habitat. Adding heavy rain into the mix only creates more stress and water overflow for the city.

Flat surfaces also contribute to flooding, especially in areas where trees are absent. Street puddleWhen heavy rain falls and storm drains reach capacity, rainwater has nowhere to go so it sits along streets and sidewalks accumulating in volume and damaging property.

If your community has a strong community and urban forestry program in practice than it is one step closer to mitigating stormwater runoff. To qualify as a Tree City USA community, a town or city must meet four standards established by the Arbor Day Foundation and the National Association of State Foresters. The Tree City USA program is a key component of a healthy urban and community forestry program.

Is your community a Tree City USA recognized community?

Urban Forestry Plan is Key to Weathering the Storm

Let’s face it: no one likes to think about natural disasters, with their potential for devastation of our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and livelihoods. We’ve shared on this blog before about some of the communities hit hardest in recent years by natural disasters, and told the inspiring stories of citizens returning hope and healing to the places they call home.

Even still, there’s simply no way around it. Natural disasters are a fact of life.

When a natural disaster strikes a community, trees are invariably involved and many

Photo credit: Urban Forest Strike Team.

Photo credit: Urban Forest Strike Team.

times on the losing end of the event. Using the framework of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program, sound urban forestry management has proven essential to loss prevention and recovery of our treasured trees.

The scientific consensus is that climate change is occurring and that, in many cases, it is making natural disasters worse. Any planning to mitigate disasters should also include planning to reduce human-caused acceleration or magnification of climate change.

According to a survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, nearly three-quarters of U.S. cities are now seeing environmental shifts that can be linked to climate change. More than 1,000 city leaders have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement to strive to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets in their communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A healthy canopy of trees plays an important role in this effort. Trees need to be considered a vital part of every city’s infrastructure – right alongside the bridges, roads, sewers, electrical, and telecommunication grids – and appreciated for the natural workhorses that they are. For proof, one need not look further than the great role trees play in taming stormwater runoff during and immediately following natural disasters.

Sound urban forestry management through the framework of the Tree City USA program has been proven to be essential time and again. In fact, green infrastructure is the only part of a city’s infrastructure that actually increases in value and service over time.

Whether for preventative measures or recovery efforts, here are four key ideas your community needs for the best possible outcomes:

  • Communities with an established budget for tree care are in a better position than those that must compete for grants or appropriations. If your community is a recognized TreeCity USA, your community allocates the standard minimum of $2 per capita in a community forestry program.
  • Be prepared with an emergency management plan – and even better if it specifically includes a storm contingency plan. Unfortunately, it’s likely not a matter of IF you’ll need it, but rather WHEN you will.
  • Take time to “get it right” after a disaster. As in most things, it’s far better to move slowly with deliberate, well thought-out decisions and wise judgment than to rush into hasty action. This is particularly important when considering where reconstruction efforts will take place across a community and where trees should be replaced.
  • Lean on the expertise of your local tree board and their extensive list of contacts. These people will be an invaluable resource when it comes time to actually do the work of replanting trees.

For more information on best practices and ways your community can recover from natural disasters, see Tree City USA Bulletin #68.

Donate Now: Plant trees where they’re needed most.

 

Treating Trees: Good Advice from a Girl Scout

Here at the Arbor Day Foundation, we have members, advocates, and supporters from all walks of life, representing all corners of the globe, and encompassing all ages.

In part, that’s because the good work of planting and caring for trees spans all boundaries – physical, geographical, socio-economic, and many others.

And we love hearing from these advocates. They’re caring, passionate people who lead interesting lives and who have wonderful stories to tell.

This week, our Member Services team received an email from a young lady in Newark, New Jersey, named Victoria Ribeiro.

Girl ScoutsVictoria is a high school-aged girl scout who is working on earning a Gold Award, the highest award given by the Girl Scouts of America. All Gold Award projects must begin with identifying an issue about which the scout is passionate and end with educating and inspiring others on the topic.

Clearly, Victoria is passionate about trees, and we can honestly say we were inspired by her work. Her Gold Award project, an educational PowerPoint presentation entitled Treating Trees, “…seeks to educate the residents of the city of Newark so that they will be able to identify hazardous trees.”

A scene from a Newark, New Jersey, neighborhood following Hurricane Sandy. Ribeiro's presentation seeks to inform people of what to do with hazardous trees in their neighborhoods.

A scene from a Newark, New Jersey, neighborhood following Hurricane Sandy. Ribeiro’s presentation seeks to inform people of what to do with hazardous trees in their neighborhoods.

Victoria’s email continued: “I must make my project have a global/national impact. I looked at your website and saw that [the Arbor Day Foundation] didn’t really have any program that the residents of a city could help identify trees and make his/her community a better place to live. I am emailing you in the hopes that you may possibly create a program similar to mine to make other neighborhoods a safer and better place to live.”

Victoria, we commend you on your excellent presentation and how you’re helping to educate your fellow citizens on trees and tree care. We’re proud to share your work with others who can learn from it for greener, healthier neighborhoods — in Newark and beyond.

Thank you for sharing your passion for trees, and we wish you much succes on your way to earning the Gold Award.

Download your own copy of Victoria’s Treating Trees presentation.

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Oregon Department of Forestry: Trees benefit business districts

State foresters often have their hands full with managing public woodlands miles away from the nearest home or business. But it’s becoming more common to hear them tout the numerous benefits of urban forestry, whether they work directly with cities or not.

Downtown-EugeneCynthia Orlando, a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry, makes the case for urban forestry in general and the pluses to commercial areas in particular in an op-ed in the Statesman Journal.

The research points to substantial long-term gains in commercial areas with ample street trees. U.S. Forest Service studies have found $2.70 in benefits for every $1 invested in city trees, and Orlando also points to University of Washington research showing increased foot-traffic in tree-lined commercial areas.

There’s also the qualitative element. What kind of attributes are people looking for in a business district? Orlando writes:

Healthy trees send positive messages about the appeal of a district, the quality of products there and what customer service a shopper can expect — they’re an important component of any program to attract shoppers and visitors

Portland received well-deserved attention for its growing tree canopy, but many of Oregon’s smaller cities have exciting programs as well. Oregon State University in Corvalis is the first and only Tree Campus USA in the state. Salem and Eugene (pictured above) are both drawing new housing and business to their forested downtown.

Find out more about urban and community forestry in Oregon here.

Photo courtesy of Oregon Attractions

Looking back and looking forward in urban forestry

The Arbor Day Foundation was launched in 1972 during the tree-planting holiday’s centennial year. Much has happened in the 40 years since, and much work remains.

We have seen great progress, for example, in the spread of effective urban forest management. For many years, tree care at the municipal level was haphazard to non-existent. The standards and recognition of the Tree City USA program has helped to change that, due in large part to the partnership of the U.S. Forest Service and National Association of State Foresters.

The increased attention to urban trees care was alive at this year’s Partners in Community Forestry Conference, where a number of panelists pointed to street trees as central to creating great cities where people want to live.

In Richmond, California, and Baltimore, Maryland, and Camden, New Jersey, the beauty of newly-planted trees and community pride they inspire has strengthened neighborhoods and begun to put a dent in crime. Experts in planning and design say trees help attract new residents and commercial development. Trees are also central to the fight against climate change, with some communities finding innovative ways to include trees in cap-and-trade programs.

But urban forestry has also suffered from some setbacks. Heavy drought during the past two summers have killed or severely damaged millions of trees, with the U.S. Forest Service estimating that urban tree cover has been declining by 0.9 percent annually. Major storms have presented challenges for communities that contain both mature trees and above-ground power lines. And, declining resources have led some cities to pursue misguided policies that would transfer the responsibility for street trees from professionals to individual homeowners.

Solutions exist to all of these challenges, but they require continued management and resources. The Foundation will continue to advocate for both.

But some creativity may also be required. For example, rather than shifting tree care responsibility to people who not seek it, cities could follow the example of Chico, California, in pursuing voluntary tree care partnerships. With a declining tax base and abandoned neighborhoods, Detroit leaders opted for a controversial land purchase to allow for urban farming, an approach that has already found success in Chicago, Newark and elsewhere.

We look forward to your continued support and partnership as we continue to inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees – both in our nation’s cities and throughout the country.

Approval of urban farm in Detroit sparks controversy yet offers promise

In September I wrote about Detroit, Michigan, and a new campaign to repurpose vacant parcels of land into urban farmland and revitalize the local ecosystem.

According to the New York Times, entrepreneur John Hantz offered to purchase 140 acres of abandoned land in Detroit to clear the empty lots of debris and plant roughly 15,000 hardwood trees. Hantz and his colleagues have said their plans for the land will increase economic activity, raise property values and add to the city’s tax base.

Support for this method of repurposing some of Detroit’s vacant lots is mixed.  Many agree that urban farming would diversify the city and be a more beneficial use of the land space, which currently supports foreclosed homes and crumbling buildings.  But some residents and city officials view the transaction as a land grab that Hantz will use for his own benefit.

Nevertheless, on December 11, the Detroit City Council approved the sale of the land to Hantz in a 5-4 vote.

A website developed to detail Hantz’s proposal states his intentions to transform blight to beauty, convert abandoned properties to fields for new agricultural production, create jobs and strengthen the city’s budget.  Hantz has witnessed the deterioration of Detroit over the years and says he wants his farm to not only be used for agricultural production, but also as an open area the community can experience and appreciate.

Additionally, Hantz plans to plant trees and encourage neighbors to enjoy their beauty and learn about the importance of urban trees, including how they can be used as a sustainable and profitable resource.

Photo taken from City Farm, a successful urban farm located in Chicago

Although it remains to be seen how the land will be developed, community participation will be important for the overall success of this project.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture advocates that active involvement from area residents  in projects like these is key to building an empowered, successful and more satisfied community.

Through its Tree City USA and Tree Line USA programs, the Arbor Day Foundation understands the positive impact urban forestry has on cities worldwide and therefore sees the potential benefits Hantz’s urban farm can have in the community.  There is significant promise in Detroit’s effort to build a new, green economy.

Op-ed pages sound the alarm on proposals to downplay tree care professionals

Facing tight budgets and reduced staff, a number of cities around the country have either floated or are already moving forward with troubling proposals to shift the responsibility for tree care from professionals to homeowners.

By downplaying the numerous benefits of urban trees and putting their care in uncertain hands, these ideas are the textbook definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish. Even responsible homeowners willing and able to do the right thing lack the bargaining power and strategic decision-making ability that is only possible through a comprehensive, citywide approach.

The Foundation’s home here in Lincoln is one community where this is being considered, prompting founder and chief executive John Rosenow to submit this op-ed to the Lincoln Journal Star.

Confronting similar challenges, the San Francisco Chronicle weighed in with a Saturday editorial imploring city leaders to find the money to take care of street trees and criticizing the decision to shift responsibility for 1,200 trees to homeowners:

This policy requires homeowners to maintain trees they didn’t plant, might not even want, possibly can’t afford and probably don’t know how to care for.

The result could spell disaster for the city’s forest. Already, around 4 percent of our trees die every year because of age or lack of proper attention. The city employs only six arborists, down from 19 four years ago. That’s fewer than one trained worker for every 17,000 trees.

The Chronicle also surveyed several ideas for new revenue.

In Sunday’s Journal Star, Rosenow pointed to the Foundation’s experience growing the Tree City USA program into more than 3,400 communities over 36 years. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. He also noted that Lincoln’s experience serves as direct evidence of the need for a professional approach:

A well-staffed professional forestry team was crucial to protecting tree canopy and minimizing property damage during Lincoln’s early-fall snow storm in 1997. Other cities sustained much greater damage by banking on a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach that downplayed the importance of professionals — and the damage remains visible today.

Civic and business leaders in Lincoln have recently stepped up marketing toward young professionals and employers. Rosenow concluded:

Increasingly, jobs and the companies and professionals who create jobs are highly mobile. The successful cities of the future will be those who recruit and retain the best jobs by creating an outstanding quality of life for its citizens — including a well-managed urban forest. We would hope that Lincoln will be such a city.

We’re pleased to see the issue of tree care – often lost in budget discussions, as San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener and others have pointed out – begin to receive the attention it deserves. We look forward to being part of the continued discussion, both here at home and throughout the country.

Expert on livable cities tells St. Louis trees should top the list

An international expert on livable cities told a St. Louis audience that more trees should top the list of ways to make the city even more vibrant and enjoyable to reside, visit and do business.

Opportunities for walking and biking, ample parks and community gathering spaces like coffee shops were other elements highlighted by Guillermo Penalosa, executive director of the nonprofit 8-80 Cities and a former parks and recreation commissioner for Bogota, Colombia.

According to David Hunn of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Penasola stressed that focusing on these elements rather than per-capita income will help cities thrive. When a city has the amenities people want, the economic piece fall into place.

“We live in an ever more globalized world,” Penalosa said. “Quality of life is the most important tool of economic development.”

If St. Louis wants to retain its best-and-brightest, he said, it has to focus on quality of life.

The role of urban forests in increasing quality of life is well appreciated by the more than 3,400 Tree City USA communities and the people who call them home. When we think of our favorite shopping districts or residential blocks, they are often the places full of healthy, well-maintained trees – even if we don’t realize it at first.

Penasola is right. If we want strong economies in our cities, we need to make them more livable and inviting. And if we want boost livability, it starts with trees.

The photo above, courtesy of Washington Magazine, shows the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, a two-year Tree Campus USA.

Portland’s growing tree canopy provides many benefits

Photo Credit: OHS.org

Once nicknamed “Stumptown” for the massive clearing of trees during a phenomenal period of growth in the 1800s, Portland now proudly protects, encourages and monitors the growth of its expansive tree canopy and is dubbed a Tree City USA community.

In collaboration with the Arbor Day Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, the Tree City USA program “provides direction, technical assistance, public attention, and national recognition for urban and community forestry programs” across the nation.

Portland has held the title of Tree City USA almost since the Arbor Day Foundation began the program in 1976.  The benefits of Portland’s dedication to being a Tree City USA for the past 35 years permeate the entire city.

According to a recent news article in the Oregonian, “an aerial imagery study released by the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation shows that the city’s tree canopy has grown by 2.6 percent over the past 10 years, and now covers nearly 30 percent of the city.”

Photo Credit: ColumbiaRiverImages.com

The Arbor Day Foundation has compiled information from various sources regarding the many benefits urban trees provide environmentally, economically, and socially for millions of Americans.

The Tree Canada Foundation asserts that “one tree provides oxygen for up to four people in one day.”

According to the Oregonian, “Portland has approximately 240,000 street trees, and 1.2 million trees throughout Portland’s parks.”

The U.S. Forest Service has determined that urban trees in the Chicago area filter an estimated “6,000 tons of air pollutants each year, providing cleansing valued at $9.2 million.”

And, according to a 2009 Parks Bureau study, the ecological benefits of Portland’s street and park trees are valued at $27 million annually.

Photo Credit: Oregonian

Other benefits of urban trees include better air, soil, and water quality, lower occurrences of asthma and stress among children, increased carbon sequestration, and reduced energy use for heating and cooling.  In fact, the International Society of Arboriculture has revealed that the shade and shelter provided by trees, annually reduces heating and cooling costs in the United States by $2.1 billion.

Mark Ross, Parks Bureau spokesman, states that Portland’s next goal will be to achieve a “33 percent urban tree canopy by 2030.”

Portland residents will surely enjoy and appreciate the many benefits a robust urban forest reaps for years to come.

Planting trees alongside new development builds better neighborhoods

Last week, a reporter from the Memphis Commercial Appeal reached out to us about a city initiative to plant more than 1,000 trees in concert with a new uptown development project.

The Foundation is rarely involved in a specific project like that, but from our experience working with communities on urban forestry throughout the country — including the nearly 3,500 Tree City USAs — we are well equipped to speak to benefits of new trees.

The Memphis neighborhood is historic but currently underdeveloped, and city officials envision leafy streets and a strong community feel as homeowners settle over the next few decades. As reporter Tom Bailey Jr. points out, potential buyers are purchasing a neighborhood as a much as the home itself:

“Can we put a dollar value on what a tree does to a house?” said Carol Lott, president of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors. “Probably not. I don’t think we could add $500 or $1,000 per tree. But I just think it’s got an overall better curb appeal and a more mature feeling to a neighborhood.”

According to the article, landscape architecture firm Richie Smith Associates drew up the tree-planting blueprint, one of the largest in Memphis in the last 25 years. The new trees will be comprised of native species (including the northern red oak, pictured at right) that will minimize strain on sidewalks and city infrastructure.

The project also included pruning and maintaining the existing 550 neighborhood trees, with removal pursued where a young replacement makes more sense.

Bailey asked about the benefits of these trees, and I pointed out that future residents would be especially grateful that planting was done sooner rather than later. Shaded streets can often signify the difference between a community and an anonymous cul-de-sac. And, with more Americans moving into or back to urban areas, building and maintaining great neighborhoods is crucial.

Earlier this year, a group of volunteers and civic leaders renewed their push to achieve Tree City USA designation for Memphis. We look forward to adding them to the list.