Despite Their Benefits, Urban Trees Declining Across America

A recent study by the U.S. Forest Service shows that out of 20 cities surveyed, 19 showed a decline in tree cover. With their demonstrated benefits to public health, property values, and reducing pollution, Tod Newcombe asks why they're disappearing.

Although a street tree's environmental and aesthetic value is seemingly immeasurable, the U.S. Forest Service has apparently quantified the value of a single urban tree at $2,500. Whether calculable or not, despite their benefits, the Forest Service found that American cities suffer a net loss of 4 million trees annually.

"The reasons for such a broad decline vary, according to Eric J. Greenfield, a forester for the U.S. Forest Service and co-author of the study," says Newcombe. "He mentions wind storms, drought, pest infestation, old age and removal as some of the key contributors. But the last problem cited might be the biggest contributor as cities continue to cut down trees to make way for new development."

So what can be done to reverse this decline? Cities such as New York and Boston have started tree planting campaigns, with varying success. Newcombe finds hope in other indicators:

"The good news is that our understanding of how trees benefit cities has been extensively documented, and more people are being trained in urban forestry. Software tools like i-Tree have been developed that can accurately assess and analyze an urban forest, and community groups continue to raise funds to pay for tree plantings."

"Hopefully," concludes Newcombe, "as cities emerge from the last vestiges of the Great Recession, we will see a revival of interest -- as well as investment -- in our urban canopy."

Full Story: Tree Population Falling in Cities



Plant trees for your grandchildren

One of the reasons that urban tree cover is declining is short-term thinking.

Any neighbourhood that benefits from mature tree cover does so because people planted trees 1 or 2 generations ago. The typical scene is a street with 100-year-old trees in front of some of the houses, but no 25- or 50-year-old-trees. So what kind of canopy will the street have in 50 years when the old trees are gone?

The more transient or nomadic we become in North America, the worst it gets. It's one thing to have the foresight to plant a tree for your own grandchildren, but a hard sell to get someone to invest in planting a tree when they don't plan to live in their house 15 years from now when the tree's benefits really start paying back.

Fortunately here in Toronto and other cities there are excellent initiatives. The City of Toronto Urban Forestry Department will plant a tree in front of your home for free if you ask them to, and Leaf Toronto is a non-profit that will plant a tree anywhere on the rest of your property for free.

I hope we see more programs like this in every city.

Dan Wood
Landscape Architecture Jobs

Tree Decline.

The reason for urban tree canopy decline is two-fold:

1. The costs of tree planting and infra preparation are borne by the developer, but the benefits accrue to the public.
2. The benefits of canopy cover are not capitalized.

Change either (or both) and decline ceases.



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