Urban Forests Bring Cities, Economies to Life

Not only are trees great natural assets for neighborhoods, they can also have a calculable impact on local economies. Urban forests are becoming a popular solution for public and private interests to bring vitality to blighted areas and further the growth of cities.

Photo by Christos Barbalis

Trees are fantastically utilitarian organisms. They provide countless benefits to ecosystems and the organisms that inhabit within it, including humans. We all know that trees are pretty and produce the oxygen we need to breathe, but they are beginning to mean even more. As cities develop and expand, the natural ecology and the trees native to it, is starting to be viewed as an asset that can directly benefit urban infrastructure as well as the well-being of residents. The uses of trees now expand so broadly their economic impact in urban areas can be calculated in very real numbers.

If it has been awhile since public school, trees are photosynthetic organisms that intake carbon dioxide (CO2) and release oxygen (O2). This process is beneficial to humans because it takes the leading greenhouse gas contributing to climate change and urban pollution and turns it into the clean air we breathe.

Furthermore, absorbed CO2 is turned into solid matter as the woody structure of the tree, storing it into a safe and practical byproduct for humans. Timber can be used for construction, biofuel, paper products, and countless other uses. Most importantly, tree wood growth keeps carbon stored in a safe place and out of the atmosphere.

This process occurs so much within forests that it can be measured in real dollar worth. This means that trees simply existing in an area become a product that can generate capital. Even a simple arboreal byproduct such as O2 can be bought and sold in an open market. This can be compared to the rate of O2 trees respire annually to estimate the average annual revenue.

Cities across the United States are beginning to capitalize on this by assessing urban tree canopy inventory within governmental bounds. The current urban forest is surveyed to determine tree species, age, health, and physical characteristics. Once gathered, this data is analyzed to generate the current ecological value generated from the urban forests. The forests’ ecological processes are categorically evaluated by pollution removal from the air and water, carbon stored and sequestered from the atmosphere, as well as value received from reduced energy costs from beneficial shade. These and a few other categories can be added to generate the entire Urban Forest Compensatory Value.

Image by Andy Thies, Paul Mackender and Braden Anderson

On average, cities that have conducted surveys have found that trees cover an average of 25% of the entire urban area, depending on climate. But a quarter of land cover generates astonishing revenues. Los Angeles, CA (24.90% tree cover) benefits from roughly 4,500 tons of pollution removed from the air and water as a result of their urban forests, a value of around $32 million annually. The Urban Pines of Toronto, Canada (26.60% tree cover) remove around 1.1 Million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually, worth roughly $25 Million yearly. Compensatory (overall) value of urban forests can vary from $2.3 billion in Chicago to $12 billion and $16 billion in Los Angeles and Austin, TX respectively. Astoundingly, these numbers only include city centers as evaluation areas. A study of anchor city and surrounding suburbs can yield even greater values.  In Kansas City, the survey area was large enough to include the city center and outlying suburbs that are directly connected within it (roughly a nine county area). The study found that the region owes roughly $93.4 billion dollars to its urban forests for the ecological services they provide.

These numbers indicate trees’ value while planted. When harvested from urban tree farms, timber can yield huge economic and environmental benefits as well. However, trees grown for ecological and social benefits are managed differently than those managed for timber production. The private sector, though, has begun to capitalize on both the ecological and structure value of urban forests while revitalizing areas of foreclosure and blight

Fresh Coast Capital is considered an impact investment firm, providing resources to communities to reinvigorate brownfield properties. A brownfield is a land site defined by the EPA as having hazardous contaminants or substances within it.

When a property is considered a brownfield, property values of the land and the surrounding area drop and the land often remains unused. Fresh Coast works with communities to help restore the land to increase property value and use it for future capital.

Typically, the firm purchases or leases land for fifteen years and plant hybridized poplar trees. These trees grow fast and become a multifaceted investment for the community. As they grow, they provide all the ecological and aesthetic amenities as any other urban forest. Along with restoring the local ecology it also restores property values around the area by providing tree cover and a wholesome use of the land.

The National Forest Service researched the relationship between property values and tree cover within an area. A ten percent increase in tree cover within 100 meters of a property increased sale price of the land by an average of $1371.

Over time, the property will increase with value and should attract local ecology and restore fauna and flora. At maturity, the poplars are harvested for their physical assets. The wood is used as local construction material and the sequestered carbon can be used to collect green carbon sequestering stipends.

Additionally, scrap wood can be sold as biomass, an organic material used for renewable fuel (burned at special biomass power plants). This means that after the land becomes ecologically restored, the wood can then be sourced locally to generate power for the surrounding area. It’s a process that generates capital through its entire cycle while increasing land values and providing natural resources for the local economy.

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