Four Myths about Urban Forestry and Greening Cities I

Stick around urban forestry folks for even a few hours, and you’ll hear a lot of what my Southern friends would call “home truths” – simple observations about the way things work in their own particular world.  Just about always, these “home truths” are rooted in experience.  But in a field as fluid as urban forestry, time moves quickly: protocols change, people learn new skills, professions evolve, new science and sophisticated tools become common practice.

Even amongst all this change [perhaps because of it], “home truths” endure.  Some persist to the point that they can act as a drag on real progress in greening cities.  In this series, we’ll look at four.  First up — the alarming [yes, that’s right] tendency to set sky-high planting goals. 

Myth One:  A Million Trees

Beginning decades ago when Andy Lipkis and Tree People set out to plant a million trees for the Los Angele Olympics, most urban forestry campaigns begin with a “big number” goal.  New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project MillionTreeNYC followed, along with Denver’s MileHighMillion and a bunch of other communities.  No doubt, launching your campaign with big numbers can build excitement, and energize volunteers.

But there’s a big downside.  Planting trees is only the most visible part of urban forestry programs – not the only part.  Before picking a “big number” and simply putting trees in the ground, planners need to decide which trees belong where – in brief, where investing in trees will bring the most benefit to residents.  Just as important, they need to plan and finance their program so they can cover the costs of maintenance and care in the future.  You can’t just plant, walk away and expect a tree to grow in Brooklyn, Denver or even Paris, Texas.  Or you could try, and suffer the same fiscal ache plaguing Los Angeles as it scrapes together the money necessary to maintain trees planted more than a decade ago.  Even worse, poorly maintained trees drop branches on yards and trees – or worse.  And residents might come to see the trees they helped to plan as a nuisance, not a welcome addition to the neighborhood.