Why urban planners are turning to trees to solve community problems.
One of the best sources of public discourse at Main Street is the simple act of hand delivering items. We don't always have time to do that, because the community and our membership keeps us very busy jumping from project to project. However, occasionally we engage in a discussion where someone asserts a negative stance on a particular topic. Although we usually try and address answers to concerns in the "did you know" portion of the weekly e-news, we sometimes run into topics that require a more complex answer than a one paragraph blurb can supply. Thus is the case with a conversation we had several months ago about trees.
"Why do you need trees downtown" we were asked. The speaker went on to assert "they are justa waste of public dollars." Everyone has the right to their opinion
, and we appreciate it when people have the courage to actually express their opinion in
(a rarity these days). But, we also understand that it's difficult for people to understand the purposes behind every action beyond the aesthetic. Thus is the case with trees. Yes, they make a downtown look better, but they have several different benefits that go far beyond "looks". Below are some of the many reasons why we should encourage the continual addition of appropriate tree types within a downtown area.
1. Trees extend the life of asphalt streets and other surface infrastructure.-
Heat damages surfaces. Common sense tells us that its cooler in the shade, but did you know that a tree canopy can extend the life of an asphalt street by 20%? In dollar terms, extending the life of our last downtown street resurfacing project by 20% would save taxpayers $156,000 simply by allowing deferred maintenance through improved street conditions. Although initial infrastructure improvements that allow for trees wouldn't be cheap, in the long term saving money through tree canopy conservation seems like a good investment.
2. Trees improve pedestrian safety in downtown "walkable" areas.-
Although pedestrians understand that cars stop at the curb, our base instincts can make vehicles moving close to pedestrian environments seem unsafe because of our base instincts. For thousands of years humans were conditioned to move away from things rapidly approaching us. Trees offer a convenient and attractive safetybarrier. When people feel safe, they relax. When they relax, they are more prone to spending. Go towww.arborday.org/trees/benefts.cfm for additional psychological benefits of trees.
3. Trees cool areas, saving utilities and providing consumer comfort.-
From Jeff Speck's Book "Walkable City", the author states "According to the US Department of Agriculture, the cooling impact of a single healthy tree is equivalent to ten room size air conditioners operating 24 hours a day." Tree cover can reduce temperatures in the heat of the day by 5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The reduction in heat and protection from the elements provide consumers with additional levels of comfort and can help reduce solar gain and wind induced utility costs for businesses within a tree lined area.
4. Trees cut down on pollution (both air and water).
In Leicester, England, researchers found that plants absorbed over 200,000 tons of carbon per year, which is important in the context of CO2 emissions. Of that 200,000 tons, over 97% was absorbed by trees, thereby preventing CO2 from escaping into the upper atmosphere and inducing a greenhouse effect. Trees also impact harmful water runoff, including sewage overflows induced by heavy rains. The United States has 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage overflows per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, that produce devastating impacts for our rivers, lakes and streams. Trees ensure that 30% of proximate rainfall is absorbed directly into leaves and they make the surrounding ground 30% more porous. Essentially, trees reduce the amount of water (and pollutants) flowing into our streams by capturing water before it gets to our streams. Tree's also reduce stress on our storm water sewer system by capturing water prior to its entry into the series of pipes that carry water to our streams and rivers, thus reducing the threat of flooding.
5. Tree lined streets are considered more affluent by consumers and visitors, aiding community pride and property values.-
A study conducted by the Wharton School of Business found that residential properties in Philadelphia with mature trees had, on average, a 9% higher value than those that did not have mature trees. In his book 22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees Dan Burden showed a 12% higher income stream in tree lined business districts when compared to treeless counterparts. Trees offer a space for holiday decorations (like Christmas lights) an a natural color palate that changes with the seasons. There is a reason that people flock to Washington D. C. for cherry blossoms or the northeast United States as the maple trees turn during the fall.
6. Our community streets were often named based on their inclusion of trees.
Did you ever wonder why most cities have streets named "Maple", "Walnut", "Oak" and so on? At one time, streets would identify themselves by the trees planted along their route. The same type of tree planted throughout an extended area, although making the region more susceptible to blight, had the benefit of creating a consistent visual that unified the disparate architectural styles that could permeate an area. The same concept holds true for commercial districts. Trees can offer a unified visual if consistent varieties appropriate for core districts are planted in a coordinated fashion.
Yes, trees in a dense environment or among historic homes are "pretty", but they do serve a purpose. We can calculate the impact of trees in the life of infrastructure extended, public safetythe elimination of pollutants and property valuation. And, while it may not make sense to include trees in more "vehicle only" portions of a community, for areas that want to emphasize pedestrian or bike travel, trees are important. For communities where rain water deposits into local rivers (like Emporia), trees are critical for decreasing pollutants entering our water and upper atmosphere. So, trees offer much more than just beautification at a fraction of the price any other type of mitigation strategy would require.
As we look at sidewalk projects, redevelopment activities and a move towards balancing efficiency, function and beauty through public planning, let's not forget the impact simple things like the inclusion of trees can have long term within our community. Thinking through the little things as a city progresses can result in long term benefits for our city.