Why Are Trees So Important and Can They Save Us (From Climate-Related Doom)?
Before we get into the importance of trees and our impending doom that a shortage of trees can bring, the short answer is yes, they can help to save us. How? Trees have an extraordinary set of powers that other site elements do not have. They not only provide beauty and shade, but can also foster a healthier environment. There are many benefits from trees, and they have profound impacts to every locality of the world, including right here in our backyard.
How Do Trees Help?
Trees combat a man-made phenomenon known as the “Urban Heat Island Effect.” Urban Heat Islands occur in highly developed areas with pavements and buildings that absorb the Sun’s heat and then re-emit that heat into the surrounding environment. Urban Heat Islands are further perpetuated as more vehicles take up space on the road, as more people crank up their AC, and as industrial facilities release extensive volumes of heat into the air. They are called heat ‘islands’ because of all the cooler land that sits around them. The surrounding areas are not as urbanized, and they do not experience this reflected heat and corresponding rise in temperature. This rise can range from 1 degree Fahrenheit to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. In a sense, this can alter the weather in a city and greatly impact people during their daily activities. Impacts might include things like a heat stroke, dehydration, or perhaps a car that overheats and breaks down more easily. As you may have guessed, the Urban Heat Island Effect plays a significant role in advancing climate change. Researchers from the Science Museum of Virginia are mapping relative heat and the Urban Heat Island Effect in various cities throughout Virginia, including the City of Virginia Beach. The preliminary results of their research show that areas with less tree coverage, like Hilltop, have high temperatures as compared to areas with more tree coverage, such as Alanton, which are relatively cooler. The Science Museum has also shown interesting contrasts in the relative temperatures across various city demographics. For example, temperatures can vary as much as 16 degrees higher in low-income neighborhoods than in more affluent ones. This correlates directly to the lack of trees and the expansive pavements in these areas. What does this mean in relation to quality design and affordability?
One way we can overcome this heat disparity is by promoting the use of urban trees. Trees provide enough shade and coverage to absorb the Sun’s rays and for cooling pavements that can otherwise be burning to the touch during the Summer when beachgoers are frequently barefooted. By cooling these surfaces and providing shade, trees also help us conserve energy. Through their reduction of relative heat gain in our communities, trees effectively keep us from having to dial up the AC. Keeping the AC down actually helps to cool cities during heatwaves by as much as 30 percent. This in turn helps to combat the undesired effects of climate change.
Trees can also contribute by reducing flooding and rainwater runoff by up to 60 percent for a given area. The roots of trees promote infiltration by taking up water and distributing it through the tree and out as evapotranspiration. This means that when heavy storms hit a city, the city will be better protected because of a more stable water table and trees will be able to effectively “pump” out the water. At the same time, trees help to prevent soil erosion that is likely to happen in urbanized areas where rainwater runoff is more prevalent. The trees bind loose soil and prevent easy washout downstream.
Growing an Urban Forest, or what is also known as an Urban Tree Canopy, in highly developed areas can help to scrub pollutants from the air and provide more availability of oxygen. By filtering out carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air we breathe, trees help boost immunity and improve our collective public health. Clean air promotes lower rates of asthma and birth defects. Not only can trees improve our physical health, but they can help with our mental health, too. In London’s 31 districts, for example, a recent study showed that there was a strong correlation between areas of high tree densities and low use rates of antidepressant prescriptions among those who live in each respective district. This suggests that trees in public spaces provide a natural remedy to the stresses of a busy life. Imagine if everyone had an Urban Forest within walking distance of where they live.
Why Would I Want Trees in My City?
Trees not only have an enormous, positive effect on our health, but they also can help make a world of difference in our economies. In a study provided for the City of Tampa, Florida, it was shown that trees saved the City almost $35 million as they were attributed to lower costs for items such as public health, natural stormwater management, and natural soil erosion prevention measures. In Chattanooga, Tennessee spanning over 8 years, there was roughly $500 million pumped into city infrastructure, greenways, and parks, including the planting of many trees. After this money had been allocated properly, both the number of full-time jobs and the number businesses more than doubled. Property value increases grew by 127.5% and values went up over $11 million. Smaller cities around the US can take these inspiring examples and apply similar approaches to their own communities. By doing so, the economy of their city can potentially be revitalized.
Trees also provide homes for animals and for other plants, which boosts biodiversity. Biodiversity can promote a strong economy, support healthy ecosystems, beautify an area, improve the quality of the food chain, and promote a balanced ecosystem. In addition to boosting biodiversity, trees help to lower particulate matter (PM) in the air. This keeps you healthy and prevents you from inhaling toxic chemicals or allergens that can cause harmful reactions and diseases.
How Is Our Hometown Getting Involved?
The City of Virginia Beach has been an official part of Tree City USA since 1980 and has been trying to grow its urban forestry initiatives since then. The Virginia Beach Department of Parks & Recreation has been spearheading a movement to promote an Urban Tree Canopy (UTC) in the area. This will specifically help the City of Virginia Beach with Stormwater Runoff Reductions and property value increases ($109.5 million increase per year). Realizing these two enormous payoffs, the City of Virginia Beach Urban Forest Management Plan was published in 2014 and sets a UTC goal of 45% by 2034. That means 45% of all land in Virginia Beach would be covered by trees by the time the year 2034 gets here. In 2018, the City only had 39% of a UTC which means they were lacking only 6% to reach their ultimate goal. This may not seem like a lot, but to get to 45% coverage they would need about 4,800 additional acres. An ambitious goal, but it can be done with proper management and placement of trees. More importantly, preservation of existing trees is a critical priority, especially given the exponential benefits a mature tree yields as compared to tree planted within its first ten years. The tree planting and tree saving rate would have to be larger than the rate of tree removal from disease, pests, storms, and new development.
So, perhaps we are not yet on the cusp of doom, but indeed, trees can save us from a lot of environmental and health-related issues. It would not be a stretch to say that people need trees like they need clean air and water; trees promote each of these.
The real question is how can you be a part of promoting trees or an Urban Forest where you live? The answer is simple:
1) Learn More About Trees. There are some excellent resources with your local county or municipality. Here is Virginia Beach’s Urban Forestry website: www.vbgov.com/government/departments/planning/green/urban-forestry.
2) Get Involved. There are many committees, non-profit groups, and Arbor Day activities in which you can participate. One such group is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which plants trees among many other bay-saving efforts. Here is a place to contact them: www.cbf.org/about-cbf/locations/virginia/offices/richmond/volunteer.html
3) Spread the Word. Share with others what you are learning and how tree planting and preservation are important. You can also find and identify local heritage trees and post them on social media to get more people aware of these mature trees that have become wonderful assets to their communities. Here is one source to explain more about finding heritage trees: https://www.arborday.org/trees/bulletins/documents/064-summary.pdf