A few years ago researchers in Chicago concluded that living in a neighborhood with trees might actually make you safer.
University of Illinois Professor Frances Kuo and her colleagues found that neighborhoods with trees had less crime and residents reported less violence in their lives. A barren landscape leads to less civility, more aggression and higher crime rates.
They get that in New York and Chicago, in Providence and New Haven, cities where leaders understand that trees matter a great deal. There are signs that some understand this in Hartford, where our tree canopy is increasingly threatened.
Trees are a cheap way to clean the air, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. They cool buildings, prevent erosion, provide shade and boost property values.
Yet experts say we are barely replacing the trees that die.
All those trees that came down in the last storm? Most of them aren't being replaced, even though it will take decades to grow another mature tree. Towns and cities often spend far more on cutting trees down than planting new ones.
"In general the rate of planting is at best keeping up with the rate of removal," said Chris Donnelly, urban forestry coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "In a lot of communities, it is not even doing that."
Donnelly and others feel some optimism, however, as cities realize that trees do more than make streets more friendly and livable. New York plans to plant 1 million trees by 2017. Providence and New Haven have ambitious tree-planting goals. The Metropolitan District Commission, working with the Knox Parks Foundation, will plant scores of trees as part of its $800 million sewer separation project.
Not long ago, Knox, along with the city and the DEP, took a careful look at tree coverage, known as the canopy. They found that about 25 percent of the city is covered by trees, providing Hartford with millions of dollars in annual economic benefits.
"Everybody will agree that trees are nicer to look at than bare pavement. But then there are the facts. Trees actually save money," Ron Pitz, acting executive director at Knox, told me when I stopped by his office the other day. "I know of about 40 tree grates along sidewalks that are empty."
Knox replaces about 600 trees annually in the city, with its "green crew" of Americorps volunteers, but they can't keep up. Last week Knox planted a handful of replacement trees near Noah Webster School, but it took a private fundraising campaign by city council member Matt Ritter to pay for the work.
In New Haven, a partnership between Yale University, the city and private donors is working together to plant 10,000 new trees over the next five years.
"The data is showing that it really makes economic sense to invest in the canopy. And most cities are saying that it's not just the government's job," said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, director of the Urban Resources Initiative at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
"For a long time people didn't know about the value you were bringing. It wasn't thought of in economic terms. Now you have very specific data. You can study and learn how much air particulate matter is captured by trees in their leaves," Murphy-Dunning said.
Providence has a 20-year-old tree-planting model that could work for a city such as Hartford. A public-private partnership pays for trees when neighbors come together and submit a group application.
"A lot of times you will see tree planting as one of the first steps toward revitalization of a neighborhood. It is a symbol that people care," said Douglas Still, city forester for Providence. "They are a litmus test on the health of a community. Neighborhoods without trees feel abandoned."
Trees, as the Knox Parks' Charmaine Craig told me, "are a life force." Planting more of them isn't just good for the soul, it's an investment in the future.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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