In praise of urban trees

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.

– Ogden Nash

If only billboards were the only threat to trees.

We’ve all seen it: the shady tree-lined street that’s ultimately widened at the trees’ expense to improve traffic flow; buildings placed so close to trees that ultimately the trees must be removed for fear they’ll fall on the buildings or ruin the foundations with roots; old farms and woods that are clear cut to make room for subdivisions and shopping malls.

Most of the old trees on my subdivision lot have fallen down during the ten years we’ve owned the house. Why? The contractor’s grading crews got too close to them or otherwise disturbed the lot’s water flow. Recent droughts in Georgia haven’t helped.

Fortunately, more and more people are getting tired of a world of hardscapes and tree canopy losses. Initially, people spoke only about sacred spaces, habitats, shade and ambiance, but in a practical world, those weren’t considered important enough reasons for conserving and maintaining urban trees. Now, like most things that should be saved simply for themselves, trees are standing a better chance of standing because we have found economic reasons for doing so.

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In Virginia, Tree Fredericksburg is typical of the kind of local initiative that demonstrates the rationale behind saving trees, showing the day-to-day economic benefits of preservation (in addition to the ability to attract grant money).  The group’s WHY PLANT section on its website lists reasons that are (thankfully) becoming disseminated more widely these days.

  • Improve air quality
  • Protect air and water
  • Save Energy
  • Extend the life of paved spaces
  • Increase traffic safety
  • Sustain local economies
  • Increase real estate values
  • Increase the quality of life

For years many conservationists (including me) focused our efforts on habitats and quality of life, but few people cared. Perhaps we have become a little wiser by pointing out that while “quality of life” is usually the last on most lists of benefits (and habitat/ecosystem is often missing), we can influence people toward a praise-of-urban-trees stance with the other items in the mix.

Events such as this one in Jefferson, Georgia draw attention to the need for trees in urban settings.

Many organizations are willing to help you translate your love of trees into tree-canopies-favorably-impact-your-pocketbook facts that people will listen to. Among my favorites are the Arbor Day Foundation (including its Tree City USA program and standards) and the Trust For public Land* (with a focus that includes urban parks as well as wilderness).

Local groups, such as my town’s tree council, work with volunteers and local governments to assess tree canopies, recognize heritage trees, sponsor tree donation programs, and add tree-favorable provisions into land use management codes as well as historic district regulations.

Joyce Kilmer’s widely known poem “Trees” ends with the lines:

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

In the current century, we can still love Kilmer and ambiance and our fine feathered friends. But stronger tools are needed for effectively praising urban trees. Since money appears to speak louder than the gods and goddesses—at least in a voice we can hear and understand—then perhaps we must stop talking about the joys of shade and bird songs, and focus a bit more on real estate values and the preservation of pavement.


* The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with Cox Communications, announced May 23 that Anne Little has been selected as Virginia’s Cox Conserves Hero. As her nonprofit of choice, Tree Fredericksburg will receive $10,000.

Adventure fiction can be a strong advocate for the environment

11 thoughts on “In praise of urban trees

  1. Smoky Zeidel

    The events you speak of are so valuable for people, for the trees, and our towns. But we forget a practical reason we need trees: they manufacture the oxygen we breathe. If we cut down all the trees and pave them over, we’re going to die from lack of oxygen.

    1. j.e.glaze

      exactly, Smoky. I watched a TED talk that discussed this and the new landscape of urban America.

  2. Urban and rural, it seems there is always a fight to save trees. With the economic problems lately, all of the local politicians here are now waging a war against our forests. They will destroy millions of years of forest growth and a substantial amount of our western watershed for a few short-lived jobs, a few talking points politically and a little extra tax money to squander on projects that we can’t sustain permanently anyway. There’s a market for lumber in China.

    1. The thing is, with forest management practices (for which there is a certification program), there’s less and less need to destroy old growth…especially for a quick buck.

  3. j.e.glaze

    Excellent article, Malcolm. I find it disheartening and even repulsive when I see someone with a house and large lots, clearing the trees away from it for what ever insane or inane purpose they can think of. often, those trees are older than they are by many years. to those people, the trees aren’t living things, but only things to be moved. to me, they are living creatures who the people are killing for selfish purposes.

  4. Hi Malcolm,

    Excellent contribution in awareness of urban tree. I recently read one blog about trees that helps to reduce crime rate and I am totally convince with the facts they mentioned. Trees also protect our soil from erosion. We have a big threat of emitting immense carbon dioxide and trees are the only hero that can help us in reducing it.


    1. Thank you, Brenda. I hadn’t read about trees and crime rate reduction, but I hope it’s true. They bring so much else into a city environment that this would be a bonus.


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