WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 5, 2013 — When it comes to a commitment to care for greenspaces in the nation’s leading cities, conservation organization American Forests has found that some urban areas are doing much better than others. Through a combination of an in-depth survey, independent data and a vote by a blue-ribbon panel of leading urban forest experts, the nonprofit has named the 10 best U.S. cities for urban forests: Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Minneapolis' urban forest

A view of central Minneapolis, one of American Forests 10 best cities for urban forests, from across the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls. Credit: Ron Reiring

American Forests defines urban forests as “ecosystems of trees and other vegetation in and around communities that may consist of street and yard trees, vegetation within parks and along public rights of way and water systems. Urban forests provide communities with environmental, economic and social benefits and habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The project, funded by the U.S. Forest Service, found that while many cities are working to improve their green infrastructure, top-ranked cities have made prolonged investments in the health of their urban forest, as well as benefited from active nonprofit and community participation in improving and maintaining the city’s environmental resources. Each of the top 10 cities recognized that trees don’t just provide aesthetic value, they also help in a number of other ways, including increasing property values, reducing energy costs and lowering medical costs by improving human health:

  • Denver estimates $18 million in tourism can be attributed to its park system, while also increasing health benefits to the tune of $65 million.
  • Charlotte’s trees provide more than $900,000 in energy savings annually.
  • Milwaukee’s urban forest helps remove 496 tons of pollution annually, adding up to a savings of approximately $2.59 million.

“These 10 cities are examples of the type of dedication and leadership needed to improve the health and vitality of urban forests in some of the largest cities in the U.S.,” says Scott Steen, American Forests CEO and judging panelist. “As communities across the country manage more and more for the impact of climate change and other critical environmental and social challenges, their urban forests become even more important to the health of their city. Whether it is achieving cleaner air and water, managing stormwater, reducing energy usage or stemming erosion, no two cities have worked exactly the same way to achieve their place on our top 10 list, but they each serve as a role model for others.”

American Forests worked with a panel of urban forest experts from a broad range of scientific and urban resources disciplines to identify the best urban forests from the 50 most populous U.S. cities. The panel, which included technical advisors from the U.S. Forest Service, looked at independent data and American Forests’ survey responses from local urban forest professionals and community forestry nonprofits. The panel identified the best cities using the following criteria:

  • The degree to which there is strong civic engagement between the city, nonprofits, community groups and individuals in maintaining the urban forest.
  • The degree to which the city has developed and implemented urban forest strategies to address issues and challenges such as energy conservation, stormwater and recreation.
  • The accessibility of urban forest and greenspaces to the public, including percentage of park land per capita.
  • The overall health and condition of the city’s urban forest.
  • Each city’s documented knowledge of its tree canopy, tree species diversity and age class range.
  • The status of urban forest management plans and other important management activities, such as tree canopy goals and ordinances.

One of the reasons American Forests undertook this project, according to Steen, is to showcase the tangible value that urban forests provide to cities and their residents, including economic, aesthetic, social and physical well-being. Various studies have shown a correlation between trees and lower rates of crime, reduced levels of stress and lower body mass.

“Urban forests are important for not just the health of the planet, but also for the people that live, work, learn and play under and near city trees,” says Dr. Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist at the University of Washington and member of the judging panel. “Research shows that the social, psychological and economic benefits of urban forests are substantial; a quality urban forest improves quality of life in ways that go well beyond the benefits that are more often cited: carbon reduction, clean water and stormwater filtration.”

“It takes more than just planting lots of trees to have a sustainable urban forest. These cities have put into practice some of the key programs essential to creating and maintaining healthy urban forests,’’ notes Dr. James Clark, principal with HortScience, Inc., an arboriculture and urban forestry consulting firm, and judging panelist. “These cities have strong urban forest management programs and strong civic engagement and, through ongoing analyses, have been actively optimizing their urban forests.”

“Our urban forests bring nature closer to the more than 80 percent of Americans now living in cities and towns. These urban havens purify the air we breathe, filter our water and provide beauty and escape for people from all walks of life,” says U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “The 10 winning cities provide a model for others to follow — the greener our urban forests, the more livable all of our cities will be.”

To learn more about the 10 best cities for urban forests, visit American Forests’ website at www.americanforests.org/10bestcities.

Images from the top 10 cities and interviews with experts available upon request.

About American Forests:
American Forests restores and protects urban and rural forests. The nonprofit officially launched its urban forestry program in 1982, although the organization had been supporting urban forestry efforts for decades. Over the years, American Forests has sponsored conferences on urban forestry, created an early urban forest analysis tool, CITYgreen, and advocated on behalf of urban forest legislation and support. American Forests is committed to raising awareness about the vital benefits urban forests provide and the science-based tools that are out there to best assess those benefits. In 2012, the organization published Urban Forests Case Studies: Challenges, Potential and Success in a Dozen Cities to serve as a resource and guidebook for cities trying to improve their urban forests. Learn more at http://www.americanforests.org/urbanforests.

This project was funded by Urban and Community Forestry of the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture.

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