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The Worth of Urban Trees: An Alternate Understanding

Jonathan Gregory

The Worth of Urban Trees: An Alternate Understanding

The presence of trees has been considered an intrinsic element of enriched urban environments since the start of the “Garden City” movement in Britain over 100 years ago, where their social, economic and environmental value was promoted in response to the oppressive townscapes of the Industrial Revolution.

Yet, while an awareness of their positive contribution to the quality of our daily experience has been demonstrated across numerous cultures throughout history to the point of spiritual reverence, urban trees are still often perceived as a source of much impediment, nuisance, and danger particularly in the aftermath of a large storm or cyclone.

This intolerance fed by sensationalised media grabs and often expressed with a hostility not directed towards other more immediate urban threats (eg. traffic congestion, air pollution, waste disposal etc), was evident in the public response to the recent relaxation of street tree protection laws by the BCC.

These amendments, which seek to reduce maintenance costs by allowing local residents to “manage” their own footpath trees, will have a detrimental impact on the current and future quality of our urban fabric, by both sanctioning their knee-jerk removal by a swarm of eager, un-qualified chainsaws, and by reinforcing outdated prejudices, which see them attract a disproportionate level of community angst.

They also reflect a missed opportunity to promote the active role of urban trees in the amelioration of many problems faced by city growth and development, and perpetuate the perception that they are isolated and ultimately dispensable entities within our built environment, which relegates trees to the periphery of our understanding of the urban spaces we inhabit, and our building sites.

In response to this antagonism I would like to reiterate the importance of correctly specified, installed and maintained urban trees, by reconfiguring the benchmarks and language traditionally used in their defense, that is often dismissed as romantic idealism. By doing so, I hope to present an alternate “real world” view of their “net worth” and illustrate for the benefit of both sides of the argument, an additional but often under appreciated dimension of their value, beyond the transcendental.

So at the risk of alienating my tree hugging contemporaries, who I ask graciously for a little latitude, I would like to propose that despite how we view trees, the fact they provide such substantial and “cost effective” financial benefit, to the “operational performance” of the urban environment, should be reason alone to ensure our appreciation of them as “assets” rather than liabilities.

This is due to the reduction of secondary expenditure costs associated with the delivery of social infrastructure and community services, which is variously projected to exceed millions if not billions of dollars, when applied cumulatively across the macro-scale of a city.

The scope of these savings, which can potentially fund further urban improvement, are demonstrated by the following examples, which reduce public demands on hospital, policing and welfare services, improve environmental conditions and generate commercial returns:

Health & Safety

  • Trees improve air quality, provide shade and cut fossil fuel pollution, which reduces the occurrence of respiratory disease (eg. asthma) and skin cancer
  • Trees improve patient rehabilitation and recovery times
  • Trees alleviate noise pollution, which can increase levels of public stress, anxiety and aggressive behavior
  • Trees reduce rates of violent crime by creating more positive communities
  • Trees improve pedestrian safety by slowing vehicle traffic, which reduces injury and promotes exercise
  • Trees can provide a source of healthy food and can act as an educational resource
  • Trees can encourage social gathering and communal amenity

Infrastructure

  • Trees provide effective weather protection that preserves building materials which reduces replacement costs
  • Trees cut storm water mitigation costs by decreasing run-off rates, reducing pipe sizes and flood levels
  • Trees reduce water pollution and topsoil loss and replenish underground aquifers
  • Trees absorb atmospheric CO2 and store Carbon, which reduces global warming and destructive climatic events
  • Trees reduce the “heat island ” effect of our cities which reduces energy consumption

Commercial

  • Trees improve real estate value and rental returns of residential and commercial properties
  • Trees encourage positive customer experience which encourages greater retail expenditure
  • Trees have a relaxing and calming effect on employees, which promotes higher productivity levels

It is through the greater understanding of both the sustainable economic benefits of urban trees in addition to their more tangible aesthetic and ecological qualities, that a deeper appreciation and sense of wonder over their worth can be fostered. And it is through engaged community education and civic leadership rather than myopic legislation changes, that the sense of abstract detachment which continues to define urban trees as being separate to both the built environment and ourselves, will be redressed with a warmer embrace.

How do cities fund community education into the long-term worth of urban trees in an economic environment that focuses so much on short-term savings?

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