Friends of Trees’ extensive data about the trees we plant and care for was the basis for Dr. Geoffrey Donovan’s ground-breaking study about the life-saving potential of trees–and now that data and Friends of Trees are in National Geographic! (we bolded the Friends of Trees section for you)
The surprising way that millions of new trees could transform America
The U.S. is making a billion-dollar investment in planting and maintaining trees across the country to combat extreme heat and expand access to nature. But the benefits go way beyond that.
BYJEANNE DORIN MCDOWELL
When community groups planted 125 trees in two low-income neighborhoods in north central Detroit this past spring, changes were seen almost immediately. Residents began using the newly greened streets as a pedestrian corridor that allowed them to interact more with their neighbors. Trash collectors who routinely picked up garbage reported that littering had almost stopped completely.
“To me, it was validation that what we are hoping to accomplish with trees can and will work,” says Eric Candela, director of local government relations for American Forests, whose mission for more than 100 years has been to restore and protect the nation’s forest ecosystems.
In the next few months, Detroit will receive almost $10 million to plant more trees, along with many other cities and nonprofit groups in the U.S. that will get varying amounts to affect similar change. As part of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden Administration is awarding a billion dollars in grant money to communities throughout the country to plant trees to combat extreme heat and increase access to nature in cities and towns, where more than 84 percent of Americans live.
The money, which is the largest investment to date in urban and community forests, will go mostly to disadvantaged communities that grapple with “tree equity”—having enough trees so that everyone can experience their environmental, health, and economic benefits.
Adapting to climate change while helping fight it The positive climate impacts of trees are well-documented.
Trees, including parks and nature preserves, remove about 45 million tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Already, they offset the pollution from about 10 million cars.
On a more local level, the can drastically influence the climate of a single neighborhood.
Trees are natural coolants and lower the risk of respiratory and heat-related illnesses such as those seen during this summer’s record heat wave. Streets with few trees are typically 10 degrees warmer and exacerbate “urban heat islands” that occur in areas with dense concentrations of pavement, concrete, and other materials that absorb and retain heat.
“Trees are a critical part of the infrastructure of cities and are as important as sidewalks and bridges,” says Benita Hussain, tree equity lead for American Forests, which was awarded $50 million in federal funding for tree planting and maintenance.
A growing body of research is finding that trees also provide an array of benefits associated with physical and mental health.
How trees make us healthier The calming effect of being around trees is familiar to anyone who has sat on a bench under a tree, walked down a tree-lined street, or experienced the respite of shade from a tree on a scorching hot day.
But research has also found that trees can help people live longer. A 2022 U.S. Forest Service study of 30 years of tree planting in Portland, Oregon by the nonprofit organization Friends of Trees found that one premature death was avoided for every 100 trees planted. Using data from the Oregon Health Authority, researchers found that in neighborhoods where more trees had been planted, death rates (per 100,000 persons) were lower. The association strengthened as trees aged and grew: the reduction in mortality rate associated with trees planted 11-15 years before was double that observed with trees planted in the preceding 1-5 years. This speaks to the potential public health benefits of preserving existing mature trees, which are associated with lower death rates.
In a 2020 report on Philadelphia’s goal to reach 30 percent tree canopy cover in every neighborhood by 2025, researchers estimated that 403 premature deaths overall, including 244 premature deaths in areas of lower socioeconomic status, could be prevented annually if the city were able to meet its goal. At the time, the tree canopy cover in disadvantaged areas was about 17 percent.
Trees make us happier too Numerous studies show that being around trees reduces blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Research has also found that increasing the number of urban trees is associated with a statistically significant improvement in mental health conditions, especially for people living in disadvantaged areas. A 2015 study monitored participants’ heart rates to measure acute stress responses in individuals who walked past vacant lots in Philadelphia before and after they were filled with trees. They found that looking at greener lots decreased heart rate.
“Trees calm us down, improve our mood and stress levels, and lower blood pressure,” says Michelle Kondo, a U.S. Forest Service social scientist who studies the health benefits of trees.
Being in nature helps people bounce back faster from stress, and being around trees helps restore attention. It’s a mini-rest period that reduces the body’s arousal mechanism and returns it to a more restful state, thereby stabilizing mood.
“We spend so much time staring at computer screens, but being in nature allows us to replenish that cognitive reserve,” says Peter James, an environmental health expert at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Staring at trees, even watching leaves scatter in the wind allows our brains to be ready for the next cognitive task.”
Similarly, trees can help children with ADHD. Linda Powers Tomasso, an environmental scientist at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, asserts that this is especially useful in helping children with attentional issues and that trees can help them focus more.
Transforming tree-less communities Studies confirm that planting trees fosters a sense of community and civic pride, especially in areas that have been historically underinvested in.
“Psychologically, people feel ‘someone is paying attention to my neighborhood,’” says Tomasso. ‘”Some entity cares about my neighborhood. I matter.’”
The presence of trees in urban areas facilitates outdoor recreation, physical activity, and socializing, which can reduce lonelines.
“Being near trees softens people in disposition and makes them more empathetic to others,” says Kondo.
Trees can even reduce crime and gun violence.
A recent University of Pennsylvania study examining gun violence and tree cover in six U.S. cities found that higher neighborhood income was strongly linked to lower firearm violence over a five-year period. A 2018 study on cleaning-and-greening vacant lots in neighborhoods with residents living below the poverty line found a 29 percent reduction in gun violence around lots that were greened with trees compared to vacant lots.
The process of planting and maintaining urban trees can also bring jobs to a community and lead to the creation of a local environmental workforce.
According to Marcos Trinidad, senior director of forestry for Southern California’s Tree People, which received $8 million in federal funding, upcoming tree plantings throughout parts of Southern California will require many workers—for planting new trees, pruning , and removing older trees. In fact, funding comes at a time when millions of trees are being lost to wildfires, drought, urban development, and a lack of good tree care.
“I’m not a psychologist,” adds Trinidad. “But when I’m around trees, and I can walk down a street lined with trees…, it creates this overall feeling of joy.”
By Yashar Vasef
On Sunday, April 3, The Oregonian published an Op-Ed that I wrote: “Amid shrinking canopy, community tree planting needed more than ever.” In it, I address Portland’s reported tree canopy loss and the end of our contract with the City of Portland to plant street and yard trees in the city. We appreciate the opportunity to bring attention to the importance of community tree planting and we are so grateful for all the support we’ve already received.
We wanted to share its contents with you, and answer some of the questions you may have after reading it.
Opinion: Amid shrinking canopy, community tree planting needed more than ever
The recent report about the loss of tree canopy in Portland is yet another piece of grim news related to how the climate crisis is threatening the health of our environment and our community (“Portland tree canopy has stagnated or shrunk, harming city’s climate change aspirations,” March 22). The report indicates that Portland’s urban tree canopy has shrunk or plateaued for the first time in 50 years – a warning that the city will not be able to meet its goal of having tree canopy encompass 33% of the city’s area by 2035.
Unfortunately, the release of the report coincides with the end of Friends of Trees’ 14-year contract with the city to plant street and yard trees through community planting events. This nationally-replicated partnership between Friends of Trees and the city has added nearly 40,000 street and yard trees throughout Portland since 2008, while engaging thousands of community members as volunteers to plant and care for these trees. About 70% of those trees were planted in underserved, low-canopy neighborhoods to address inequities in the distribution of Portland’s trees.
We truthfully do not know why this successful partnership is ending. There has been an abundance of rumors and speculation, but all we know is that our contract ends this June and we do not know of any city plan to invest in programs that center authentic community engagement in planting street and yard trees in Portland. Especially as we see accelerating and intensifying climate impacts right here at home, fighting climate change needs all hands on deck: government, nonprofits and communities collaborating with a necessary sense of urgency.
It’s not just about ending a contract with Friends of Trees—we understand that contracts end and terms change. But given that we are experiencing a true climate crisis, we don’t believe this is the time to cut a successful tree planting program that also builds community through bringing volunteers together to help grow our urban canopy. Tree planting is one of the best tools at our disposal, and we encourage our city leaders to increase and broaden investments in community tree planting – with us or with others – and to pursue other proven strategies that fight climate change, promote climate action and foster climate justice.
Friends of Trees is fortunate to have growing support throughout the region and from other municipalities. We want to keep our momentum here in Portland, too, where we can harness our established partnerships, volunteer resources and community buy-in to contribute to the efforts to plant more trees in Portland. We believe that the city should continue to fund community tree planting; of course, we would love to be included in that funding, and we think other organizations should be included, too. This is the time to grow public investment in trees, not cut back.
We need trees more than ever, for their ability to improve air quality, store stormwater, provide shade, improve the mental and physical health of our community members and so much more. That’s why we engage trained volunteers to check on and help care for each tree after it gets planted. Post-planting care and assessment, combined with ongoing communication with tree recipients, contributes to a 95%-plus survival rate.
Community planting nurtures more than trees. Our events engage volunteers of all ages, races, religions, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status and political views to plant and care for trees together. We partner with other organizations that center climate justice and engage people from historically underserved communities to directly play a part in improving the health and livability of their neighborhoods. It includes environmental education and internships that expand opportunities to enter the green workforce. Authentically engaging communities is crucial toward achieving climate justice.
There is a ripple effect from participating in tree planting that goes beyond the trees and the many benefits they provide. We have seen firsthand how planting and caring for trees increases community members’ engagement with the environment and participation in civic life, especially when it comes to climate action. An investment in community tree planting is an investment in stewarding future climate action.
We recognize that the end of this partnership raises questions about the future of our work, particularly in Portland. While the partnership with the City has been a significant part of our organization’s history, there’s so much else that Friends of Trees provides to the community, and we will continue to keep engaging volunteers to plant and care for as many trees and native plants as we can in Western Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Q: What is Friends of Trees doing in response to this development?
We are doing everything we can to make sure that there is still community tree planting in Portland. We are talking to partner organizations, community members, and government officials about how we can make tree planting easier, more accessible, and more equitable.
We will also continue growing our work with other municipalities throughout the region, as we find great value in these partnerships and what they can accomplish. And no matter where we plant, we will plant the Friends of Trees Way.
Q: What’s wrong with the City planting trees themselves?
Absolutely nothing! We want the City to plant trees. We do not believe that this issue is us versus them. There is an important role for government to play in planting and caring for trees.
We believe that it’s also important to include community organizations in those efforts. We want to help, and we want our partner organizations to be able to help. The more trees that get planted, the better. Be it with the City, Friends of Trees, or other community organizations, all avenues to tree planting should be open.
In addition to getting trees in the ground, Friends of Trees adds unique value to the process through community engagement. We have been involving community members in tree planting for over 30 years. Our staff has knowledge that goes beyond tree planting and tree care to volunteer engagement and education. Authentic engagement with the community always leads to more success for the tree.
More FAQ with additional information is here, we will update as needed. Thanks so much for supporting trees + community!