By Scott Steen

Scott Steen - American Forests Magazine Autumn 2012When you hear the word “forest,” what do you think of? The mighty redwood forests of northern California with thousand- year-old trees rising hundreds of feet into the air? The majestic pine forests of the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West? The eastern hardwood forests, filled with an enormous variety of maple, ash, elm, oak, beech, aspen and other tree species?

What you may not think of is your local park, your community garden or the trees that line your street. Many Americans live in forest ecosystems and don’t even know it. But unlike forests in wilderness areas, they require routine — and substantial — human intervention to keep them healthy and growing.

At American Forests, we define urban forests as “ecosystems composed of trees and other vegetation that provide cities and municipalities with environmental, economic and social benefits. They include street and yard trees, vegetation within parks and along public rights of way, water systems, fish and wildlife.”

Urban forests provide many of the same benefits that large, rural forests do. For example, they produce oxygen, remove pollution and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, clean water and provide animal habitat. But trees and greenspaces in populated areas also produce a number of benefits that might surprise you. Various studies have shown:

Photo courtesy of Live Baltimore by Phylicia Ghee.

Photo courtesy of Live Baltimore by Phylicia Ghee.

  • Residents living in greener surroundings report lower levels of fear and less aggressive and violent behavior.
  • Street trees in urban communities are associated with a lower incidence of childhood asthma.
  • Views of nature reduce the stress response of both body and mind when stressors of urban conditions are present.
  • Shoppers shop more often and longer in well-landscaped, tree-rich business districts and are willing to pay more for parking and up to 12 percent more for goods and services.
  • The presence of larger trees in yards and as street trees can increase home values throughout neighborhoods by four to 15 percent.

During the past year, American Forests has been working with urban forest advocates and experts around the nation to identify best practices and create new ways to promote the benefits of urban forests. What we have found is truly inspiring — private citizens, nonprofits, corporations and local, state and federal agencies all working together to make cities greener, healthier and more livable. And it is not just happening in the biggest and wealthiest cities. Some of the best work is happening where you might least expect it.

In Milwaukee, city agencies have been working to understand — and map — their tree canopy for decades, using a variety of high-tech tools. Policymakers have also come to see trees as a critical tool in combatting stormwater runoff. Some results of these efforts include reduced maintenance demands, the conversion of a number of previously mowed areas into natural prairies and woodlands and the replacement of ornamental boulevard trees with large shade trees, creating a denser canopy with more environmental benefits.

Barclay residents in Baltimore work together to create and maintain gardens and greenspaces

Barclay residents in Baltimore work together to create and maintain gardens and greenspaces for children and adults to enjoy. Photo courtesy of Live Baltimore by Phylicia Ghee.

In Baltimore, partners of all kinds — including city agencies, nonprofit groups, neighborhood associations and local businesses — have joined together to use urban forests to reduce urban blight, connect neighborhoods and create a sustainable, livable city. One initiative has removed more than 20 acres of asphalt from inner-city schools to create new greenspace. Another is focused on revitalizing vacant lots in some of Baltimore’s most blighted areas.

In Detroit, a city famously hard-hit by shifting economic and demographic trends, citizens and nonprofits have come together to do what the city is no longer able to do on its own. Nonprofit The Greening of Detroit has conducted tree plantings, educational programs, urban agriculture, open space reclamation, green infrastructure initiatives, green workforce development, advocacy and community building. One innovative initiative teamed local police officers and community residents to plant trees in their neighborhood, building a greater sense of community and trust by working together.

These communities and dozens like them are showing that forests and trees can make a profound difference in the everyday lives of people. Early this year, American Forests will be launching a new program designed to help cities around the country create healthier urban forests. Keep up to date on this and other urban forest initiatives at www.americanforests.org/urbanforests.