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The Remarkable Benefits of Urban Trees: Vital for Climate Resilient Communities

Imagine an object that cleans the air, fights climate change, cools your house, keeps pollution out of waterways, and even lowers your blood pressure — and it’s powered by just water and sunlight. Now imagine there are hundreds of thousands of them already in your city, with space available for plenty more.

Trees, as research has shown, are nature’s answer to a lot of modern problems. They grace our cities with more than just their beauty; they are critical to environmental management, social well-being, economic stability, and much more.

In a world grappling with the effects of urbanization and climate change, these green giants stand as unsung heroes. Let’s delve deeper into the comprehensive benefits of urban trees that underscore their indispensable role in urban ecosystems.

Trees Fight Climate Change and Its Harmful Effects

Trees play a critical role in combating climate change through carbon sequestration. They absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, converting it into oxygen and biomass. This not only reduces the amount of harmful greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere but also contributes positively to the global carbon cycle.

Strategically planting trees in urban areas can enhance this benefit, making cities central to the fight against climate change. This is because in addition to helping address the root cause of climate change, urban trees also help mitigate its most harmful impacts on urban communities. By reducing the urban heat island effect, filtering air pollution and mitigating urban stormwater runoff (see below), the urban tree canopy makes our cities more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

Learn more[1]  about how Green Cities Accord uses detailed carbon protocols established by City Forest Credits to calculate the carbon sequestration benefits of urban tree planting projects, along with their quantifiable air quality, energy savings and water quality co-benefits through our urban tree carbon offset program.

Trees Create Cleaner, Cooler Air

Air Quality Improvement

Urban trees are natural air purifiers. They absorb pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and ozone through their leaves and bark. Additionally, trees capture dust, pollen, and smoke, which helps to clean the air we breathe, making cities healthier places to live.

A U.S. Forest Service study estimated that trees remove 17.4 million tons of air pollutants annually, preventing more than 850 human deaths and 670,000 incidences of acute respiratory symptoms — health effects valued at $6.8 billion. A report from The Nature Conservancy found that urban trees provide meaningful local reductions in particulate matter and temperature, and recommended planting in areas with high population densities and concentrated air pollution.

Temperature Regulation

Trees also play a critical role in cooling urban areas, thus mitigating the urban heat island effect. Through evapotranspiration — a process similar to sweating in humans — trees release moisture into the air, which cools the environment during hot weather.

The less tree canopy, the greater the urban heat island effect. A fascinating illustration of this can be found in North Minneapolis, where a 2011 tornado blazed a path of destruction that wiped out thousands of trees and is still visible from space (see below).

The above illustration, taken from a Metropolitan Council Story Map, demonstrates the difference in temperature in an area where trees were destroyed by a tornado vs. surrounding neighborhoods with mature tree canopy.

Trees Protect Rivers, Lakes and Wetlands

Stormwater Mitigation

Trees play a crucial role in the water cycle, intercepting rainfall on their leaves, soaking up stormwater with their roots, and slowly releasing moisture back into the air. In cities, the tree canopy prevents stormwater runoff from overwhelming the storm sewer systems. Less stormwater runoff also means fewer pollutants flowing into local waterways.

In Minneapolis, a single tree is estimated to intercept an average 1,685 gallons of rainwater each year. Multiply that by the thousands of trees located in cities and you’ll start to get a sense of how important trees are for managing stormwater in urban areas.

Trees are a Vital Source of Wildlife Habitat

Urban trees provide essential habitats for diverse wildlife species. They support urban biodiversity by offering food, shelter, and breeding sites for birds, insects, and mammals. This not only helps conserve biodiversity but also enriches the ecological fabric of urban areas.

A female ruby-crowned kinglet eating seeds from a quaking aspen tree along the Mississippi River. (Credit: Mississippi Watershed Management Organization)

Trees Provide Mental and Physical Health Benefits

Access to green spaces and urban trees has been shown to significantly reduce stress and promote mental health. Natural settings provide a sanctuary from the stress of urban life, offering spaces for meditation, relaxation, and social interaction.

In fact, trees are increasingly being recognized as a solution to public health issues. The amount of urban tree canopy has been positively linked to lower rates of asthma and diabetes, as well as decreased blood pressure, enhanced immune system function, and improved overall well-being. Urban parks also encourage physical activity, reducing rates of obesity and related health issues.

The urban tree canopy is positively correlated with a variety of improved human health outcomes. (Credit: Nick Busse)

In fact, trees are increasingly being recognized as a solution to public health issues. The amount of urban tree canopy has been positively linked to lower rates of asthma and diabetes, as well as decreased blood pressure, enhanced immune system function, and improved overall well-being. Urban parks also encourage physical activity, reducing rates of obesity and related health issues.

Noise Reduction

Trees effectively reduce noise pollution by acting as sound barriers. They can decrease noise by as much as 50 percent, creating quieter and more serene urban environments, which is particularly beneficial near airports, highways, and industrial zones. This noise reduction benefits humans and animals alike.

Trees Provide Economic Benefits

Energy Savings

By providing shade in summer and blocking winds in winter, trees can significantly reduce the need for heating and cooling in buildings. This can lead to energy savings of up to 20 percent, translating into substantial cost savings and reduced environmental impact.

A healthy tree canopy provides shade to streets and buildings, reduces the urban heat island effect, and makes cities more resilient to the effects of climate change.

By providing shade in summer and blocking winds in winter, trees can significantly reduce the need for heating and cooling in buildings. This can lead to energy savings of up to 20 percent, translating into substantial cost savings and reduced environmental impact.

Increased Property Values

Studies consistently show that properties in greener areas, particularly those with mature trees, have higher property values. This increase can be as much as 3-15 percent for residential areas, providing significant economic benefits to homeowners and the municipal tax base.

Job Opportunities

The maintenance, management, and expansion of urban forests generate employment opportunities in numerous sectors including forestry, urban planning, landscape design, and civil engineering. These jobs are not only vital for local economies but also promote sustainable development practices.

Trees Enhance Urban Life

Trees and surrounding green spaces create welcoming environments for recreation and social interaction. They are integral to parks and outdoor sports areas, where people can engage in physical activities or enjoy leisure time. These areas are essential for mental and physical health, providing accessible spaces for exercise and relaxation.

Green spaces in urban areas enhance community cohesion by providing spaces where people can come together. These areas host social gatherings, public events, and communal activities that strengthen the bonds within communities. They serve as an organic setting for cultural festivals, local farmers’ markets, and other community-focused events, fostering a stronger community identity and engagement. Increased urban tree canopy has even been tied to reduced crime rates.

Urban trees also add aesthetic value to city landscapes, enhancing the visual appeal of neighborhoods. This not only makes cities more attractive for residents and tourists but also promotes a sense of pride and ownership among the community.

Conclusion

Urban trees are a critical infrastructure element that enhance the ecological, economic, and social fabric of cities. Integrating robust greenery into urban planning is not merely an enhancement but a necessity for creating sustainable, healthy, and resilient urban environments. The thoughtful integration of tree canopy infrastructure is crucial to growing climate resilient communities.

Additional Reading

To Protect Our Water Resources, Plant a Tree – MWMO

Urban Heat Hot Spots | Climate Central 

5 Benefits of Urban Forests | College of Natural Resources News

Tree Facts at arborday.org

Assessing urban forest effects and values, Minneapolis’ urban forest | US Forest Service Research and Development

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