‘City Parks for Our People’: How CITIES Prune Down Their Trees

After the snow melts, it’s time to prune down — literally. Thinkstock

The “tree plan” has been a buzzword in cities for years. But environmentalists worry cities are losing their forests faster than usual. The loss could have huge implications for urban air quality, water quality and energy costs, they say.

The modern-day urban tree plan began in the 1940s, when the League of Women Voters urged lawmakers to support planting tree city-wide. By 1968, 150 municipalities had adopted tree plans and then formed nonprofit organizations, which grew into modern-day tree councils.

Today, that many member groups makes the nonprofit American Forests the biggest network of forest restoration, stewardship and conservation programs in the country.

Roughly 15,000 towns and cities are part of the American Forests network, which has roughly 55,000 members. Nationwide, that means cities are working on tree-planting projects for more than 700 million trees a year, the group says. The total, however, may be higher. American Forests does not track numbers of individual city-based forest restoration projects, such as planting new trees or improving tree-branch structures.

Many cities fall into two broad groups: U.S. cities with new construction where trees are an underappreciated aspect of the design, like urban-renewal projects; and older cities, which preserve and even enhance trees. Together, they make up nearly two-thirds of the nation’s municipalities.

But that’s the old guard. Many cities are aging, and many of their suburbs were designed before modern building codes and more attention to the environment. For example, Ithaca, New York, built New York State’s first freeway in 1936, which caused tree canopy loss in the city’s western suburbs.

Researchers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies say more than 36 million trees a year are dying because of climate change, soil erosion and development. The problem is especially pronounced in the Northeast.

Aside from cities, forests also are vanishing in the suburbs and rural areas, where developers want to cut into the soft ground and maximize their profit.

In the suburbs, “large and affluent communities have increasingly marketed what were once middle- and low-income neighborhoods as only the homes and yards of the rich,” according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution.

Over the past 40 years, top suburban communities like Levittown, New York, Brighton Beach and Long Island City, New York, have seen their tree cover drop from nearly 19 percent to 8 percent, according to the New York Urban Forest Institute. That allows developers to cut trees more easily, reducing environmental impacts. They also save money in utility bills because plants absorb moisture and have evaporative cooling properties.

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