It is barely March, and throughout Washington, trees are budding. If you are not from here you may not realize it, but our nation’s capital is a city filled with trees of tremendous variety, and spring here bursts forth in a riot of colors and sweet smells (and major tree pollen!).

City trees, of course, have enormous benefits beyond their physical beauty. They clean the air, cool the climate, control stormwater runoff, prevent soil erosion and lower energy costs. Studies show that they also reduce stress in city dwellers, lower crime, increase property values and reduce illness.

The National Mall and U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.
The National Mall and U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Credit: rjones0856/Flickr

This week, more than 40 members of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition are gathering in Washington, D.C., to advocate for urban forests. They will convene meetings on Capitol Hill to call attention to the important environmental, social and economic values of urban forests; to discuss the threats to urban forests in cities across the nation; and to urge Congress to provide strong funding for the USDA Forest Service’s Urban & Community Forestry Program and urban-forestry research.

The SUFC is a broad and diverse coalition of individuals and organizations — city mayors, national and community nonprofits, nursery and landscape professionals, scientists, arborists, city managers and planners — who have been working together since 2004 to monitor and advocate for urban forests and green infrastructure across the nation. American Forests is a founding member of the SUFC and our senior vice president, Gerry Gray, is the chair of its SUFC Policy Working Group.

While our nation’s cities expand with our growing population, there are significant threats to urban forests due to the conversion of forests to grass, other ground covers and impervious surfaces. A new study by researchers David Nowak and Eric Greenfield of the Forest Service found that urban-forest cover declined in 17 of the 20 cities examined over a recent five-year period, and that the nation is losing four million urban trees per year. Atlanta had the highest tree cover at 53.9 percent and Denver the lowest at 9.6 percent. New York City was found to have most impervious surface at 61.1 percent, while Nashville had the least at 17.7 percent. Only one of the 20 cities — Syracuse, New York — showed an overall increase in tree cover. However, most of the increase was due to an invasive tree or shrub that regenerates naturally.

Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia
Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Credit: Clinton Steeds/Flickr

Dr. Nowak, who is a member of American Forests’ Science Advisory Board, points out that the loss of urban-forest cover would have been even higher if not for recent tree-planting efforts by local agencies and nonprofit organizations in many cities across the country. To reverse the decline, Nowak says that we need more widespread, comprehensive and integrated programs that focus on restoring and maintaining urban tree canopy.

American Forests is currently engaged in several projects to get the word out about the importance of urban forests and trees. We are in the process of spotlighting success stories from across the country of cities that have come together to save and expand their urban forests. We are also creating a process to identify the top 10 urban-forest cities in the nation and will be producing videos and engaging the media to promote the benefits of urban forests.

We often think of forests as being in the wild spaces that still exist far from our nation’s cities. But the truth is that many of our cities and towns are situated in forest ecosystems, which provide significant and often not widely understood benefits to our communities and to the planet. These forests must be protected and expanded every bit as much as the rural variety.

With timely information from urban-forest research on broad conditions and trends, new tools for local analysis and planning, and increased advocacy through broad and diverse groups such as the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition, it is possible to reverse the decline, restore and maintain urban forests across the country for their many contributions to more livable and sustainable cities. Urban-forest restoration is a top priority for American Forests.