One of the most profound positive impacts you can have on an urban landscape is planting street trees. Trees planted alongside roads make roads safer, have huge positive environmental impacts, and, of course, are aesthetically pleasing.
Some of the key benefits to street trees are directly related to local issues. Our roads and our river are two of the most important issues we deal with as a community. Streets shaded by a tree canopy last much longer the streets that aren’t, and street trees absorb a substantial amount of water, helping keep it out of rivers and streams.
Dan Burden, who is Co-Founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, an organization committed to encouraging healthy living by creating pedestrian friendly communities, and who has basically received all of the awards for urban planning, lists 22 positives created by urban trees. Because 22 is a large number for a list (and this isn’t Buzzfeed) let’s break it down into broader categories:
Street Trees Makes Streets Safer
Trees planted between asphalt and sidewalk reduce traffic speed and reduce the number of crashes. When crashes do occur they are less severe than in areas where there are no street trees, because people aren’t going as fast. Surprisingly people perceive driving through areas with street trees as taking less time than driving in areas without street trees. Pedestrians feel safer walking along streets where trees create a barrier between the sidewalk and the road. Street trees make people drive more carefully, keep pedestrians safe, and reduce the stress of driving.
Street Trees Have A Huge Positive Impact on the Environment
Trees absorb exhaust emissions, helping keep CO2 and other particulates out of the atmosphere. Roads covered by a canopy of mature trees last 40-60% longer than roads without tree cover. Canopied roads stay cooler on hot days and provide shade to nearby buildings, reducing energy costs. Street trees also soak up a lot of water, helping to prevent street flooding and runoff. The berms required to plant trees also soak up water and send it into the ground instead of the sewer system and bodies of water. Trees also provide habitats for birds, insects and squirrels helping preserve biodiversity. Street trees scrub CO2 and other pollutants from the atmosphere, reduce energy costs, make roads last longer, act as natural flood mitigation and help maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Street Trees Generate More Money Than They Cost to Maintain
Let’s look at Cedar Rapids. According to Trees Forever, a Marion based group that advocates for and plants urban trees, there are roughly 35,000 publicly maintained street trees in the city and it costs $1.2 million a year to maintain all of them. These 35,000 (or so) trees generate $5 million of positive economic benefits a year. Some of that is direct, areas with a mature tree canopy command higher prices, and pay more in taxes, than comparable places without mature trees. The average value per tree is $34 and in total generates $1.3 million a year. Through property tax revenue alone trees generate more revenue than they cost. Street trees in Cedar Rapids also divert enough stormwater to save the city $1.8 million a year, reduce energy costs by $1.3 million a year and provide $450,000 worth of air quality improvement and carbon reduction annually. That’s just the benefit from publicly maintained trees and doesn’t include privately owned and maintained street trees. Street trees increase property values, preserve infrastructure, save energy, and clean the air, generating revenue and saving money.
Street Trees Need Extra Attention When They’re Young
“We can easily say thousands,” said Dustin Hinrichs, Field Coordinator for Trees Forever, when asked how many street trees the organization has planted in Cedar Rapids. Trees Forever has been planting trees in the area for 25 years in many different kinds of locations, like parks, schools, trails and, of course, streets. Hinrich says that street trees need some special attention compared to other trees, especially when they’re young.
“You’re planting them in pretty precarious locations so they need a lot of early care”, said Hinrichs, “Getting them through the first three years is a real challenge.”
Street trees are especially susceptible to Iowa’s harsh winters. Salt from the road can do real damage to a sapling. In hot, dry weather they need extra attention to make they get enough moisture to survive.
Trees Forever launched the Treekeeper program in 2012. Treekeepers are trained how to take care of urban trees and tasked with helping make sure newly planted trees are giving the proper care in their precarious early years.
“Unless they get the established maintenance done they’ll never become mature trees”, said Hinrichs.
Treekeepers help prune, mulch, water and winterize a select group of trees, usually near where they live.
“We want people who live in the neighborhoods where the trees are planted to care for the trees”, said Hinrichs.
Making sure young trees are cared for and have the opportunity to grow into mature trees is an investment. Young trees simply don’t provide the economic benefits of mature one. The Treekeeper program depends on volunteers to plant and care for trees during their most vulnerable stage of life.
If you want to experience the difference street trees can make as a pedestrian take a happy hour stroll from the Starlite Room to Belle’s Basix or 101 Gastropub, once on the tree-plentiful north side of 1st Avenue, and walk back on the unshaded south side of the street.