By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests
Earth Day is always an uplifting time for forestry organizations, especially those like mine that plant trees. There is something about this annual April celebration, timed with leaf out in many parts of the country, which seems to bring forests into special focus as an environmental solution. While this annual burst of attention is appreciated, this year we need to make a new year-round commitment to the most underappreciated forests in our country — urban forests.
Here’s the reason why. Too often we treat urban forests like just scenery, when in fact they are critical life-or-death infrastructure for the health, wealth, and well-being of people in cities. From street trees to larger forest fragments in cities, our urban forests provide critical services. Consider these facts:
- Urban forests capture 822,000 metric tons of air pollution annually (a $5.4 billion value). This service is especially needed in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color because they generally have more air pollution. Urban forests also naturally capture almost 2 percent of U.S. carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.
- Urban heat islands elevate health risks because they increase temperatures 5–7 degrees by day and up to 22 degrees at night. Reducing heat islands with shade from trees is essential because heat-related deaths could increase as much as 1000 percent thanks to climate change.
- The cooling effect of urban forests reduces home energy use by an average of 7.2% nationally, saving $7.8 billion for consumers, $2.7 billion in avoided pollutant emissions, and vast carbon emissions from our atmosphere. Increasing these energy savings will have special benefit for low-income households.
- Trees increase property values, help boost retail sales, and can create jobs that can’t be outsourced. These benefits are particularly needed to build long-term and broadly distributed wealth in low-income communities.
With such essential human, economic, and environmental values at stake, we have to treat urban forests as a priority — to invest in them like critical infrastructure. This is especially important because the benefits of trees are unevenly distributed across America’s cities, with wealthier neighborhoods most often having more robust tree coverage. This further perpetuates the already unacceptable prosperity gaps in our country.
That’s why we have a clear moral imperative to bring the benefits of trees to America’s underserved neighborhoods. My organization, American Forests, is stepping into this challenge by helping cities work toward Tree Equity with supercharged urban forest programs that include new career pathways for underserved populations into rapidly expanding career opportunities in urban forestry. Our efforts are part of a broad and powerful movement among other non-profits, agencies and companies working toward similar goals, including strong and effective urban forest non-profits at the city and neighborhood levels.
For this movement to take flight, we need greater public investment starting at the federal level. People are routinely shocked to learn that we have just one $30 million federal program dedicated to urban forests, the U.S. Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program, compared with billions of dollars that we invest annually in caring for forests outside of cities. We need to commit to a step change in federal investment in urban forests, which will help catalyze and complement increasing investment in urban forests coming from the state and municipal levels.
I can testify from the dirt under my fingernails that America’s private sector is ready to support this public investment and match it with time and money. I spent this Earth Day in Columbus, Ohio with volunteers from JPMorgan Chase and a local partner organization, Green Columbus, turning vacant lots in the city’s Linden and Hilltop neighborhoods into tree nurseries.
Like many cities across America, Columbus’s lower-income neighborhoods like Linden and Hilltop don’t have enough trees, from trees on streets and in yards to larger forested parks. The nurseries we built will grow trees until they are hardy enough for replanting and then give them away free to homeowners, churches, and others to spread the benefits of trees in these neighborhoods.
As we finished the day, no one seemed ready to go home. We got lots of questions about how participants could join the next volunteer event, and many questions about what government leaders are doing to bring the benefits of urban forests to more people across America. This was a reminder that the time is now, and the movement is ready. Let’s make this the Earth Day when we committed to deliver Tree Equity across America.
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.