Save City Trees
By Liz Johnston, Huxley class of 2006
We are losing city trees just when we need them the most. With almost 80% of the population living in cities and towns, our urban forests touch the lives of millions of Americans.
Thirty-six million trees are disappearing from our cities and towns in the United States every year. They’re being removed for the development of our ever-growing cities. They’re dying from age, from pests like the Emerald Ash Borer, from the harsh built environment. Altogether, this urban tree loss is equal to 175,000 acres per year, a hard number to imagine.
Even more striking is the value they provide our cities. A 2018 US Forest Service study found that our city forests provide ecosystem benefits estimated at over $18 billion per year, with the value expected to increase as urban areas continue to expand.
Trees are an incredible invention of nature. Urban trees store over 900 million tons of carbon dioxide, cool our cities from summer heat, improve air and water quality, and provide a buffer against extreme weather. Trees shape the character of our neighborhoods and are a significant component of a city’s infrastructure.
The proximity to nature in our urban settings enriches our lives and benefits our health in profound ways, by improving mental health, quickening healing, and preventing cardiovascular disease. Trees create a place of protection and connection that reaches people from all walks of life, whether they are enjoying the forest for an afternoon or a lifetime.
Trees can also provide critical benefits to underserved communities, and new planting projects can begin to address historic inequities in tree cover. A study of 108 urban areas nationwide found that formerly redlined neighborhoods were hotter than other neighborhoods. These neighborhoods also lacked trees and green spaces, which provide cooling effects for residents.
Urban heat island effect and the associated health impact is a growing concern for cities as extreme heat becomes more frequent. Lack of access to cool places during heat waves can have lethal consequences for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, or people with pre-existing health conditions.
Trees are a public resource, but there is a shortage of public funding available for planting and caring for city trees. Nonprofits and local governments around the country are taking innovative approaches to monetize trees by selling carbon credits to companies that offset emissions.
According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, environmental, social, governance and impact investing has grown 34% worldwide since 2016 with assets of more than $30 trillion in early 2018. While companies are making efforts to reduce their carbon emissions and purchase more renewable energy, many still need to purchase carbon offsets to meet company carbon-neutral goals. Community-based tree projects offer an opportunity for companies to invest where people live, work and play.
Trees Forever in Des Moines, Iowa is planting trees in select neighborhoods to increase the tree canopy throughout the city, and has created a workforce training program called Growing Futures. In Iowa, the highest rates of unemployment are among young people, age 16–19, at rates of 16.5%, with African-American and Hispanic youth experiencing unemployment rates of 14.8% and 9%, respectively. In partnership with the City of Des Moines and Microsoft, the job employment program trains under-employed youth and youth of color in tree planting, tree care and professional skills, providing a path to green careers.
In Richmond, Virginia, local non-profit Enrichmond Foundation purchased two adjacent historic African American cemeteries with mature oak-hickory forest. Located on the edge of the city, the 72-acre East End and Evergreen cemeteries were founded in the 1890s and provide a resting place for over 25,000 individuals who contributed in important ways to the city’s — and the nation’s — vibrant social, political, intellectual, and religious life. Neglected since the 1970’s, the property and gravesites have been overgrown with invasive plant species and hidden by illegally dumped trash. However, with volunteer restoration work, the sites will be able to provide a safe, inviting place for the community. Based on the important natural and cultural assets of the site, the property has received international acclaim as well with a recent UNESCO designation as the first site of memory associated with the Slave Route Project. Working with the national, non-profit carbon registry City Forest Credits, Enrichmond will be able to generate over 10,000 Carbon+ Credits from protection of the forest, sell the credits to a local company, and invest the revenue back into long-term care of the property and community events.
About the Author
As Director at City Forest Credits, Liz works with local stakeholders in cities across the country who are leading the development of urban forest carbon projects. She has over a decade of experience leading complex projects and driving change through social and environmental impact projects at a regional and international scale. Liz holds a B.S. from Western Washington University in Environmental Science, 2006.