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Experts Say Trees Are Key to Healthy City Living

As cities grow, more attention is needed for tree health

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The forest will always be changing through time. But we can help direct that which means protecting the stands we have.
- David Nowak, senior scientist with the United States Forest Service

More people are living in cities, a trend that’s expected to accelerate in the coming decades, making green space and nature – and specifically, trees -- increasingly critical to our ability to live happy, healthy lives in the city.

Why trees? Their benefits to our health are numerous. They trap pollutants in the air, shield us from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation, sequester carbon emissions, and lower air temperatures in “urban heat islands” during extreme heat periods in the summer, according to “Urban Nature for Human Health and Well-Being,” a United States Department of Agriculture report.

In fact, studies have found that patients recover faster from illness, and require less pain medication, by viewing trees out their hospital window, and even looking at pictures of trees, compared to those who don’t. In Japan and some other countries, there’s a new craze around “forest bathing,” in which doctors are prescribing people to walk in forested areas to reduce stress.

“There’s been more and more data coming out on the benefits of trees in cities, in terms of human health,” said David Nowak, senior scientist with the United States Forest Service.

Troubling Trends

Nowak has published research from several studies in recent years that indicate some troubling trends for city dwellers. He and colleague Eric Greenfield of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Syracuse, N.Y., found that between 2009 and 2014, urban areas lost an estimated 36 million trees per year. They found a corresponding increase in impervious ground surfaces, such as concrete streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and building tops.

In addition, that trend will affect a growing number of people. Nowak and Greenfield found urban areas in the United States increased from 2.6% of all land in 2000 to 3% of all land in 2010. From 2010 to 2060, they project urban land to comprise 8.6% of land area.

Urban Planners Take Heed

Kelly Allsup, horticulture educator at the University of Illinois Extension, is an unabashed lover for trees who said she’s “very concerned” about Nowak and Greenfield’s research findings. They should sound an alarm for urban planners and forestry officials.

“If we are planting trees to green urban areas and sequester carbon, and they only live for a short period of time, then we are not getting the full benefits from the trees,” Allsup said. “Anybody can plant a tree. However, if they take simple steps of planting it correctly, watering during the transplant phase, monitoring its health and properly pruning it for good structure, the tree can be there for more than one generation.”

What & When to Plant

Allsup said city officials can struggle with where to plant trees and what types of trees to plant, especially with the uncertainties about future development.

“In 20 years, the housing could be expanded and the Emerald Ash Borer can wipe out all the ash trees,” she said. “This is why diversity of trees is key in an urban environment.”

Furthermore, climate change is another uncertainty cities are increasingly discussing as they look at their trees. For example, Goshen, Ind., nicknamed “The Maple City” for its abundance of maple trees, recently contracted for a study of the tree species that might be best suited to thrive as the area’s climate changes.

“In order to provide a healthy and robust urban forest for the next several generations,” the contract states, “the city needs to begin researching which species are most vulnerable, and which species from other regional climate zones may be most adaptable.”

Hope for the Future

Nowak said he’s hearing about more cities having those discussions.

“The question becomes, when do you make the change? Because these trees are a long-term proposition so if I plant a tree that’s going to do well 50 years from now but it’s not going to do well now, there’s a question of process,” he said.

Still, Nowak takes heart that such discussions are happening and that cities continue to invest resources in planting trees.

“The forest will always be changing through time,” he said. “Nothing you can do about that. But we can help direct that and try to make it more positive if we want to increase tree cover, which means protecting the stands we have.”

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