Importance of Urban Forestry

An op-ed by John Rosenow, Arbor Day Foundation Chief Executive


Local View: Lincoln's Trees Threatened

Lincoln Journal Star
November 11, 2012

Whether driving along tree-lined neighborhood streets, bicycling on the trails, or strolling through a campus or shady park, Lincoln residents deeply appreciate our city's urban forest.

A 35-year Tree City USA, Lincoln for years has achieved the highest honors from the Arbor Day Foundation. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska Wesleyan University are both recognized as Tree Campus USAs, and Lincoln Electric System is five-year Tree Line USA.

With Lincoln as the headquarters of the Arbor Day Foundation, we, too, take great pride in our city's commitment to excellence in tree planting, pruning and care.

However, the quality of Lincoln's urban forest is threatened by proposals that would shift the responsibility for ongoing tree care from city professionals to homeowners.

The math tells what the future will bring, with 500 to 700 street trees dying in older residential neighborhoods at the same time as 2,500 trees are planted in new subdivisions. But what looks like a challenge has actually been an opportunity for cities across the country. For example, accounting for the cost of planting and maintenance, New York City receives $5.60 in benefits for every dollar spent on trees, according to the city's parks department.

The variety of benefits cities accrue from community trees is profound.

First, trees save energy. According to the U.S. Forest Service, trees properly placed around homes can reduce air conditioning costs by 30 percent and save between 20 and 50 percent in energy used for heating.

Second, trees reduce municipal costs. A typical urban forest of 10,000 trees will retain 10 million gallons of rainwater per year, improving storm water management and reducing the expenditures needed for the city's sewer and wastewater infrastructure.

Third, trees improve public health. In the Chicago area, for example, urban trees filter an estimated 6,000 tons of air pollutants each year. A study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that young children living in areas with more street trees have a lower prevalence of asthma.

Fourth, trees boost the economy. Communities with ample tree-life attract more homeowners and professionals and see property values rise between 10 and 20 percent, while buildings surrounded by trees rent more quickly and hold onto tenants longer. Retail areas with more trees draw more shoppers who stay longer.

Our experience growing the Tree City USA program into more than 3,400 communities over 36 years leads us to conclude that Lincoln would greatly jeopardize these benefits by shifting responsibility away from forestry professionals.

For starters, some property owners likely will be unwilling, lack technical expertise or be unable to afford to manage street trees. 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.

Lincoln also faces a slow-moving crisis as the emerald ash borer pest approaches our region, placing more than 100,000 of the city's ash trees at risk. The need for professional urban forest management and expertise to confront this challenge is entirely predictable, but the city's hands would be tied if responsibility is shifted to the household level.

Many city pruning projects are performed by private contractors. But rather than making these transactions more efficient, the shift to homeowners would make matters worse. The city is currently able to take a comprehensive and strategic approach by negotiating for work on the entire tree canopy. Under the proposed alternative, individual homeowners would each have to negotiate on behalf of a single tree, with perhaps dozens of piecemeal pruning jobs on a given street at uneven intervals and at exponential cost.

We would never think to have homeowners negotiate their own road, sewer or utility repairs. Why should the city's important public-tree infrastructure be treated any differently?

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.