If asked for a beautiful and cheap way to boost your physical and psychological health while fighting climate change, this one probably slipped your mind: PLANT TREES in our cities!
Trees are amazing machines for cleaning and storing the carbon emissions our industries spew into the air each year. They capture and store almost 15% of total annual carbon emissions in the United States.
Carbon emissions are those pollutants that largely contribute to planetary climate change (at least if you believe in that whole science thing.)
Of the approximately 232 billion trees in the U.S., 3.8 billion of them are found in found “urban forests” spread throughout our cities. City trees are also responsible for half of the carbon capture and storage–called “sequestration”–in the United States. Placing trees in our cities are where the majority of carbon pollution occurs significantly reduces emissions.
Pavement cities suffer from what is called the “urban heat island effect,” which is responsible for between 5-10% of peak electric demand, largely due to the constant hum of air conditioning units in our homes and buildings.
Without the shade provided by trees over concrete, we are forced to crank the A/C and increase power plant pollution. However, trees can be a big help, using trees and other vegetation to combat problems caused by heat islands “is an effective air pollution control strategy, more than paying for itself in cooling energy cost savings.” Planting sufficient trees in each city can lead to an estimated $5 billion in savings each year.
It’s NOT SUPER SIMPLE, THOUGH
Treeing our cities presents a number of challenges and considerations. My small, northwestern town has actually begun to cut down a number of neighborhood trees because of the damage falling branches cause to private property. Many cities lack open spaces to plant, or have trouble drudging up resources to jackhammer the concrete and claw their way back to soil.
Cities need to weigh the health impacts associated with the kinds of trees they plant, which clog streets with pollen and severely impact local populations. There are also the kinds of pests each tree attracts to consider and the effect on people and other plants. These are just some of the considerations for non-profits and local governments to flesh out before going Paul Bunyan all-about town.
TREES IN THE HOOD
Chances are, if you live in a high-income neighborhood, you have more trees decorating your streets and sidewalks than if you live in a poorer neighborhood.
In Washington D.C., for example, 40% of low-income residents live in areas with very few trees and 80% of higher income people live in neighborhoods that are well-planted with a number of trees. As the infographic from Washington Post below shows, there is a strong correlation between number of trees and median income:
This is where environmental justice meets social justice, meaning that we should plant in poorer neighborhoods that need the benefit of lower electricity costs associated with increased vegetation–it can save up to 30% of energy costs in high temperatures. Poor people are less likely to afford an air conditioner, and whose vulnerable members are more likely to suffer from heat stroke.
CITIES OF TREES
There are plenty of cities serious about taking advantage of the benefits that come with integrating trees and vegetation into cityscapes. There is Barcelona’s “Tree Master Plan 2017-37” started because “Trees conserve and increase urban biodiversity, connect people with nature, provide social and environmental services…to current population and future generations.”
Chicago planted more than 11,800 trees in 2015. Urban forests in Chicago remove 25,000 tons of carbon and around 900 tons of air pollution every year. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel intends to beef up the city’s tree planting efforts, and plant trees in neighborhoods that have been traditionally bare, saying that “tree planting is a vital component of creating and maintaining healthy and vibrant neighborhoods in Chicago.”
Trees can increase the property value of your home and even grease the wheels of commerce, because well-vegetated parking lots and shopping centers have been shown to increase sales.
Some other recent, notable efforts and campaigns can be found in: Cleveland, Los Angeles, London, Beijing, Denver, and many more. Each city is different, and has different environments and unique challenges to integrating trees and vegetation, but many cities with strapped budgets are beginning to realize that such plantings are a cheap and effective way to improve the quality of life for city-dwellers and start shrinking our pollution footprint.
THE SHORT OF IT
Find out what groups in your city are planting trees to improve your quality of life in your city’s businesses and neighborhoods. Heck, give ‘em a ring and see how you can turn a concrete jungle into something a little more green.