Trees Play a Key Role in a Sustainable Urban Future

By Heather Doucet

Heather Doucet is a convener for the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition.

Nov 6, 2018 | Smart Cities | 5 comments

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Though trees aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about city living, urban forests are integral to ensuring and enhancing the quality of life in densely populated areas. Trees and green spaces provide a range of environmental and social benefits that can address some of the most persistent issues facing our cities today, from health and well-being, to social and economic indicators and equity, to resilience and climate change. Indeed, with more than two-thirds of the world’s population projected to be living in urban environments by 2050, the future of urban forestry and the future of the very livability of our cities are inextricably intertwined. What’s more, innovative projects and organizations in cities across the country can show the way to other communities looking to harness the power of trees for a more sustainable future.


What Trees Bring to Cities

While it’s fairly intuitive that trees are a positive, concerns about maintenance costs and other considerations can sometimes counter the notion in people’s mind that “trees are good.” Fortunately, there is plenty of strong evidence to support a significant investment in trees for a variety of reasons.

Improving Health and Well-Being

Urban trees remove over 710,000 tons of air pollution per year in the U.S., which has a major impact on fighting respiratory illnesses like asthma. Trees also filter up to 80% of phosphorus out of stormwater before it pollutes waterways and drinking water. And tree canopy shade, along with evapotranspiration (the return of water vapor from trees and vegetation back to the atmosphere), can lower peak temperatures by 2°-9°F—a key tool in combating the heat island effect present in many cities, which disproportionately impacts lower-income neighborhoods and other vulnerable populations.

Enhancing Neighborhoods

By providing inviting gathering spaces, grass cover and trees can strengthen ties between neighbors, encourage healthy children’s play, and discourage crime. In New Haven, CT, for example, a ten percent increase in tree canopy was associated with a 15 percent decrease in violent crime. Mature trees also add an average of 10 percent to a property’s value, according to a Forest Service survey.

Boosting the Economy

Sustaining a healthy urban forest—tree planting and care, managing community gardens and parks—provides direct skilled career opportunities, and is a growing field, with members of organizations like the Sustainable Urban Forest Coalition implementing workforce development and educational programs to encourage careers in urban forestry. Green industries contribute 1.6 million jobs, $82 billion in payroll, and $196 billion in sales to the U.S. economy. Trees also provide other economic benefits—for instance, workers in office buildings with views of trees report increased productivity and overall job satisfaction, while shoppers in business districts with robust tree canopy will spend 9 percent to 12 percent more for products.

Combating Climate Change

As extreme weather events continue to increase, trees can reduce greenhouse gases and energy use, lessening the impacts of climate change and strengthening the resilience of cities. At a basic level, trees remove carbon dioxide—a major greenhouse gas contributing to climate change—from the air during photosynthesis. Urban trees reduce energy use for heating and cooling homes in the U.S. by more than 7 percent. In turn, less fossil fuels are burnt to generate power, further lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide.

So what can communities do to realize the myriad benefits of trees while navigating the challenges of increasingly denser populations? Technology plays a big role, through management and assessment tools like i-Tree, and education, research and implementation platforms like Vibrant Cities Lab, which can guide decisions on what trees to plant where, and how to engage the entire community in the decision-making process. So does sharing innovative solutions from across the country, including:

Charlotte, NC

To preserve and protect its tree canopy, Charlotte’s Tree Canopy Preservation Program (TCPP) seeks to acquire and conserve land within the city. In certain commercial development situations, the City’s tree ordinance​ allows for payment in lieu of protecting trees on site, with money collected going into a fund designated for acquisition and preservation of land. Under the voluntary acquisition program, staff works with property owners to acquire land identified in cooperation with local organizations and other municipal agencies. Tree canopy is then protected under conservation easements or other legal tools for use restriction, ensuring its maintenance for future generations.

Indianapolis, IN

Over the past decade, the city’s Urban Forestry Section has worked across city agencies as part of an overall increase in the city’s sustainability efforts. For the Urban Forestry Section, this has meant an increased integration into construction and development projects through tactics such as pre-project tree inventories, workplans, and physical protections, and post-project tree replacement and maintenance. “We’re adding a very small percentage to the cost” of projects, explained former urban forestry manager Andrew Mertz, and “getting a much better product in the end.” The City has also partnered closely with organizations such as Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and Indianapolis Power and Light to plant thousands of trees throughout the city, with a focus on neighborhoods that stand to benefit the most from increased tree canopy.

Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Parks & Rec’s TreePhilly program gives trees away to increase canopy over plantable space in private residential yards. The program’s community mini-grants help neighborhood-based organizations run giveaway events semi-autonomously, under the premise that neighborhood groups can more effectively recruit neighbors to participate. Research shows it seems to be working, leading to more equitable distribution of trees across the city—an especially important fact given Philadelphia’s high poverty rate.

Sacramento, CA

A strong partnership between the city’s urban forestry division, the Sacramento Tree Foundation, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District has helped to grow and care for the city’s urban forest. The SMUD Shade Tree program has planted more than half a million trees since 1990, working with homeowners and community foresters to identify appropriate species and placements to maximize energy savings. The city’s urban forestry section developed a three-part plan in consultation with outside experts, prioritizing an industry-recommended 3-5 year pruning cycle, planting trees each year to maintain a diverse range of tree ages, and focusing on irrigation during the first 3-5 years of tree life—investments that are ultimately providing long-term benefits for sustainability.

Ultimately, thriving tree canopies, with their diverse benefits for cities, are fundamental to ensuring sustainable, livable communities. Trees can be a critical part of addressing virtually any of the pressing sustainability challenges that face our cities today.


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  1. Heather, as the President of the Board at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and a co-coordinator of a local tree program in my neighborhood, I can tell you there are also many unmeasurable benefits to trees and neighborhood planting programs. SMUD’s free-tree program in partnership with the Sacramento Tree Foundation is our best-known community outreach effort. second to our core mission ion leaping the lights on, this is what SMUD is known for among our customers. More locally, I can tell you that since 2001, the Arden Park Tree Program has planted more than 2,000 trees to replace the Modesto Ash trees that were planted when our homes were first built in the 5o’s. The ash trees are dying out and we were at risk of losing our tree canopy. We have successfully reversed that trend, and our planting day each Fall has helped build community, involve our neighbors more in the community and has fostered long-term benefits. Trees!!!!

  2. I thoroughly agree that trees are an important aspect of urban sustainability and livability. I just want to offer a bit more information about trees and their removal of phosphorus from stormwater. Yes, stormwater trees in areas that are specifically designed to channel run-off to the root zone can remove substantial amounts of phosphorus.

    BUT, that phosphorus is a major component of leaves. In the fall, if leaves are not removed from paved surfaces, rainwater creates a strong “tea” as it travels through leafy debris on its way to storm drains. In Wisconsin, research shows a distinct spike in phosphorus levels in stormwater outfalls during the fall and spring periods when leaves (and the phosphorus they contain) are on streets where rainfall picks up that phosphorus and moves it out to streams, rivers, and lakes.

    The lesson is this. Cities need to design green infrastructure to take advantage of the pollutant-catching talents of trees and other vegetation, but cities also need to help clean up after trees when they shed their phosphorus rich leaves in order to keep that phosphorus out of stormwater. Regular leaf pick-up on the fall and early spring can dramatically reduce the phosphorus spike that otherwise occurs. See

  3. Since LA emits 52 million metric tons a year alone, 710,000 tons of sequestration nationally seems a bit anemic. The issue is the burning of hydrocarbons. While trees make for much more livable and beautiful cities, planting them for CO2 sequestration is insufficient. Lets get to root causes (so to speak). Reduce the use of fossil fuels and air quality will improve, CO2 emissions will go down, and more

  4. This article was really enlightening. In a developing city like Guwahati in the state of Assam in India in which I leave the tree cover has been dwindling over the years and the situation needs to be reversed. Sustainable cities will have to be order of the day for our future generations.

    • Khanindra, do not feel remorse about the decline of tree canopy in the State of Assam. Wealthy cities as is the City of New York and its sustainability and resiliency policy share an equally appalling trend in its failure to ensure and advocate that urban trees especially large “public” trees are protected and preserved as a vital element in the urban infrastructure. Instead the trend is, as I have witnessed it for 2 decades is a deliberate denuding of the large tree asset in order to ensure new tree plantings that are a mandatory sign-off criteria for new building developers. So, city permitted builders are being allowed, perhaps even encouraged to deliberately harm, damage and destroy existing public trees as long as they install a new one. By that scenario on a daily basis played out over time- it is the public and its health in the end that looses- a quiet policy that is rubber stamped by commissioners and elected officials that allow it to continue.


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