Recognizing the Value of Trees in the Urban Forest

Posted: November 22, 2016

Have you given much thought to the trees in your community? Trees are a major component of the urban forest and provide a variety of benefits to our local communities.
Honey Locust street trees planted in State College.

Honey Locust street trees planted in State College.

Are you one of the 80% of Americans that live or work in an urban area?  Take a minute to look outside your office window.  Does it look inviting out there in some mystical way?  What makes the outdoor environment so inviting?  It's actually the urban forest outside that peaks our interest and helps our minds take a break from the other tasks at hand.  Research shows that employees who can look out their office windows to see trees and nature reported being happier at work and are more productive.   This, in itself, could be enough to justify planting and maintaining trees, but trees can do so much more.    

Have you given much thought to what makes up the urban forest?  An urban forest actually includes all public and private green space; the trees, shrubs, grassy areas and even stormwater management areas.  Many of these areas are managed or maintained in a certain way.  Other green space may be designated as a preserved area because it is a buffer for a creek or stream.  Within the urban forest, trees provide structure making these areas interesting, attractive and inviting.  Many of us tune in on the seasonal cues trees provide such as new leaf growth and flowering announce the start of spring, or indicating fall as the leaves change color and begin to drop.  This natural cycle helps make winter more bearable.  Our urban forests provide many more services with economic and social benefits.               

We need to recognize trees for the benefits they provide but also be aware of the concerns they can create.  For each of us as individuals, trees of the urban forest provide different perceived benefits such as increased wildlife value, providing privacy and reducing noise.  A mature tree in your front yard can add as much as 20% to the value of your home.  Trees can also have negative consequences.  To insurance companies and utilities, trees may be viewed as a hazard because of the potential risk to cause damage.  Yes, trees do fall over or lose branches which can damage homes, vehicles or knock down utility lines.  A developer may be required to preserve existing trees or plant new trees per a site plan.  Municipalities have to coordinate leaf and woody waste collections and address resident complaints about fallen tree limbs, uprooted sidewalks and sewer system concerns.  So, at this point do you view trees as a problem or a benefit?  Most "tree problems" can be prevent or reduced through better planning and proper maintenance.  Unfortunately, sometimes trees seem to be planted as an afterthought with no concern of becoming a future hazard or requiring additional maintenance.  Just remember the wrong tree, in the wrong place, will become a problem.  Pennsylvania is currently experiencing many issues related to the poor practice of planting invasive tree species in our communities. These species continue to move into natural areas and negatively impacting native biodiversity.  Pennsylvania has also experienced many costly issues related to introduced insect pests such has Gypsy Moth, Emerald Ash Borer and recently Spotted Lanternfly.  Better monitoring and planning could prevent many of these concerns while at the same time increase the benefits trees provide in a community.       

What other beneficial services do trees provide?  Benefits include improving water quality, reducing flooding, improving air quality, cooling in the summer and providing greenhouse gas reduction by sequestering carbon.  Native trees are a better choice because they are acclimated to our regional climate and provide greater wildlife benefit.  Trees provide shade during the summer months when it is hot outside, keeping our homes and communities cooler.  Keeping urban areas cooler also reduces air pollution by avoiding emissions since less fossil fuel is needed to generate electricity.  Everyone is familiar with trees helping clean the air by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen but trees also collect and hold a lot of dust pollution that occurs in the air.  Trees slow down rainfall, absorb water and reduce stormwater run-off.  In downtown areas, the presence of trees create a more inviting community and visitors spend on average 15 minutes more shopping and dining.  Has your community earned Tree City USA recognition?  Make sure you have signs posted to inform visitor and educate residents.  Recognizing the benefits of urban forests will increase everyone's appreciation of trees and the value of investment in necessary tree planning and maintenance. 

So how do you develop a plan to improve your urban forest and invest in trees for the future?  There are many resources available to help municipalities, community organizations and private land owners.  These resources help identify current conditions of trees in your urban forest and then provide tools to develop a long term plan to meet your goals.  Penn State research for Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry estimates that nearly half a million Pennsylvanians own a small patch of woodlands considered to be something less than ten acres in size.  The average small ownership is about two acres.  Considering all of these small patches adds up to approximately a million acres, this identifies about 10% of our state’s woodlands are privately held.  The Woods in Your Backyard is a great resource for private land owners and would also be helpful to land-use planners. 

Another useful publication offered by Penn State for municipalities is Managing Natural Resources A Guide for Municipal Commissions.  This guide provides recommendations for enacting a street tree ordinance, conducting a tree inventory, creating a community tree plan and the role of trees and forests in stormwater management. The Lancaster County Planning Commission also created Pennsylvania Native Trees and Shrubs, A Landscaping Guide.

If this has peaked your interest in learning more about benefits of trees and the urban forest there is a Forest Resources webinar about TreeVitalize and Tree City USA Update being offered on December 21, 2016.   TreeVitalize is a public-private partnership established by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to restore tree cover in Pennsylvania communities.

There is one more tool to help with creating a successful  urban forestry plan.  Be sure to check out is i-Tree, an online source for assessing and managing forests and community trees.  I-Tree provides tools for evaluating current conditions and existing benefits of your urban forests and modeling to demonstrate the benefits of future tree investment and maintenance.

Can we really determine the value of the trees in our urban forests?  Yes we can.  Check out the results from Pittsburgh estimating that the annual benefit of publicly managed trees was $1.6 million or $53 per tree.  Don't forget that privately owned trees and urban forests also provide benefits.  The vitality and success of our local communities and economies are intertwined with future investment in the trees of our urban forests.  So invest in your community's future by creating a master plan for your urban forest.

Contact Information

Thomas Smith
  • West Nile Virus Program Administrator
Phone: 717-840-2375