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There is a quote that has widely been attributed to the church reformer, Martin Luther: “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!” (Others have it translated as, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.) Apparently, any written support for him actually saying this only dates to 1944 so it is most likely apocryphal. Still, I’d like to imagine that Luther would appreciate the sentiment. And in a world where it can often seem like its going to pieces, there is something generative about planting a tree. Spring is a season when tree planting is not only easier for the planter with the hard cold ground of winter giving way, but better for the sapling as well giving it a chance to become established before the heat of summer.
The fine city in which I reside has been involved in a citywide initiative involving a public-private program called MillionTreesNYC where it plans to plant a million trees across the five boroughs over the next decade increasing the overall urban forest by twenty percent. Currently, New York City is home to some 5.2 million trees making up an urban forest of 168 species and a tree canopy covering over 44, 500 acres, which means that 24% of the land of the City of New York is covered by trees. Think of that the next time you see Times Square or Yankee Stadium and ponder the concrete jungle that actually one quarter of NYC is covered with trees. Certainly, many of those trees reside within the City’s vast and well-known park system including 6,000 acres of woodland alone. But many trees also fill backyards, community gardens, development landscaping, and alongside highways and streets. It is especially these street trees—who need to be tough and hearty—that provide such valuable service to the residents who live amongst their leaf-shaded blocks.
For instance, the value of all those street trees in particular has been “calculated” (and shared by MillionTreesNYC) at $122 million annually or $209 per tree. This includes energy cost reduction lowering summer air temperatures, Lower Summer Air Temperature: “According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urban forests reduce urban temperatures significantly by shading buildings and concrete and returning humidity to the air through evaporative cooling.” This not only helps to make life a little more bearable in the summer but he cumulative effect is of $28 million in energy savings ($50 per tree at roughly $3.41 per NYC resident). Street trees provide annual stormwater capture and retention of 890 million gallons or an average of 1,525 gallons per tree providing the city a service valued at $35 million. Overall it is estimated that for every $1 invested, New York street trees return $5.60 in benefits.
Obviously, the services they provide go beyond just the energy and water infrastructure. Street trees assist with improving air quality. “Trees remove dust and other pollutants from the air. In fact, one tree can remove 26 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, the equivalent of 11,000 miles of car emissions. Our trees remove about 2,200 tons of air pollution per year, valued at $10 million annually. Along with that they slow global climate change not only by the above mentioned energy savings, but with carbon capture as well. It is estimated they remove over 42,000 tons of carbon each year. Other values that street trees provide include increased property values and appeal to community and business districts.
To be fair, I feel a little bean counter-ish, over utilitarian to attribute value as if it can only be associated with a monetary number. What is the value of a tree for its own beauty? How about how it affects life around it? In fact street trees have demonstrated value that goes beyond the mere financial. For instance they provide wildlife habitat, and not just for the wider business economy, but for the economy of life and the interrelated ecology of nature that we are a part. Trees support the birdlife that fills our ears with song. And study after study has shown the health affects of simply getting out and about in green space, and this can include even a tree-lined street. Trees encourage greater physical activity.
Of particular interest though in my thoughts today is where I began, the value a tree provides when it seems the world is falling to pieces. Could planting a tree make a difference in that way? I commend the following article from environment Yale, the magazine from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Regardless of the conclusion, today I will plant a tree.