| By Kristina Meek
According to the nonprofit organization American Forests1, more than 140 million acres of America’s forests are located in cities and towns. Bringing a little piece of the forest into our urban and suburban world confers numerous benefits. Wherever you live, it’s a great idea to advocate for trees in our urban and suburban landscapes. Just take a look at all the good they bring.
There are several benefits that trees, particularly native trees, provide to urban and suburban areas, many of which are particularly desirable in Florida.
Trees improve the very air we breathe. They produce oxygen, absorb particulate matter, and reduce smog. A 2014 study2 showed that trees save $6.8 billion a year in health costs by reducing the risk of respiratory illness. The researchers estimated that our leafy friends save as many as 850 lives in one year.
According to the U.S. EPA3, “Structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies.” We call the result the heat island effect. Daytime temperatures in a heat island can range up to seven degrees hotter than surrounding areas — and nobody wants that in Florida! More than uncomfortable, heat islands increase energy use for cooling, meaning more greenhouse gases are produced. Extreme heat also poses a health risk, especially for the elderly and people with existing health conditions.
The presence of trees and vegetation can actually reduce crime. A 2012 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior4 showed that trees in a suburban right of way were associated with lower crime rates at 2,813 single family homes over a two year period. A study5 conducted in Tallahassee and published in the Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society similarly found that “the more abundant the vegetation around a house, the less frequently property crimes occurred.” These are just two examples of an entire body of research on the relationship between vegetation and crime.
All kinds of creatures need trees, including birds, insects, lizards, and small mammals. They might live in a tree, raise their young there, use it as a source of food, or simply benefit from its shade. In Florida, the urban forest can attract everything from hummingbirds to our declining green anoles6.
As we all remember from elementary school, plants “breathe” carbon dioxide as part of photosynthesis. The trees around us hold onto carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere where it would otherwise contribute to climate change due to the greenhouse effect. U.S. trees sequester 14% of carbon dioxide produced by our economy.7
Trees and other plants filter runoff as it moves into our aquifers, streams, lakes, and ultimately, the ocean. They reduce the pollutants moving into these precious resources while also working to reduce flooding and reduce stormwater management costs.8
Of course, there is the aesthetic quality of trees that we talked about at the beginning. A view of plants and trees is scientifically shown to make people more relaxed and productive9 while they work. Ample evidence shows that trees boost physical, mental and emotional health.10
What can we do to gain all of these advantages? First, take good care of the trees we have, and avoid cutting them down whenever possible. Second, plant trees wherever you can, whether on your own property or as part of a public initiative.
If you have the opportunity to plant trees on your own property or in a public area as part of a community effort, do a little research to choose the right species. Trees thrive when they get the right amount of sunlight, the right nutrients, and adequate space. A great choice is to choose tree species native to your area. Native trees are more readily suited to your climate and soil, meaning they will require less water and maintenance. In addition, they will attract the native wildlife for which they’re inherently suited.
The Arbor Day Foundation and other organizations sometimes offer promotions where you can get free or inexpensive trees, as well as help choosing the right species.