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Exploring societal benefits of healthy urban forests
Urban forestry, the care and management of trees to improve the urban environment, is becoming better known and more appreciated. However, the fact remains that most people dont stop often to think about the many benefits trees in urban settings provide both people and communities. Theres still work to be done.
As part of a recent Oregon Board of Forestry meeting, board members and meeting attendees had the opportunity to tour several parks in Portlands metro area to view urban forestry innovations and discuss the environmental, social and economic contributions trees make to communities. For example, stormwater runoff often carries dirt, oil and other pollutants into our waterways. In a North Portland neighborhood, the board looked at ways the inconspicuous Holman Pocket Park treats high volumes of storm water via strategically placed infiltration basins, newly planted trees and native plants a huge benefit to the neighborhood and environment.
There was a time when "urban forestry" referred only to the planting of trees in urban areas. However, these days the term means much more. It encompasses the management of urban trees and associated resources to sustain urban forest cover, human health and numerous socioeconomic and ecosystem services like wildlife habitat, reduced crime, clean air and clean water.
Today, we also think more broadly about green infrastructure, which refers to the use of the natural elements of an urban setting, including vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments. And many people today are learning that green infrastructure can be used to manage storm water and pollutants by restoring and maintaining the natural hydrology of a watershed. As communities work to meet regulations of the federal Clean Water Act, urban and community forests can assist in maintaining the health of our urban watersheds while also lowering costs of water storage or treatment systems.
One facet of green infrastructure is bioswales; these are gently sloped drainages filled with vegetation designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water. The board also looked at a rain garden at Portland's Water Pollution Control Laboratory. And, at Columbia Park, they listened to Portland's Urban Forestry Supervisor Larry Maginnis describe the many contributions made by urban forests as well as what some of the challenges are.
Could healthy trees in our cities be a matter of life or death? Geoffrey Donovan, a U.S. Forest Service research forester from the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, spoke on the tour about correlations between the presence of trees and public health. One of his studies found that pregnant women living in homes surrounded by trees were significantly less likely to deliver undersized babies.
A separate but related study, says Donovan, analyzed data from 15 states and found that residents living in areas infested with emerald ash borer a beetle that kills ash trees suffered an additional 15,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 more deaths from lower respiratory disease when compared to uninfected areas. The human health implications of these and other recent research should make us think long and hard about the investment decisions we make with respect to our urban forests.
Concluding the boards urban forestry tour, Brighton West with Friends of Trees had a simpler argument, boiling things down by asking each person to name just one reason why a tree is a big deal. Answers ranged from wildlife habitat and wood products to offsetting climate change, providing memorials to loved ones and enjoying trees for the cooling summer shade they provide our city streets.
The most important take-away messages? For one, the importance of green infrastructure trees, open space, waterways and other natural assets in providing the environmental, economic and social benefits we all need. For another, the insights gleaned about the many human health benefits trees provide and the need for society to not just value trees, parks, and open spaces but provide financial and other support to the urban forestry programs of Oregon cities.
Cynthia Orlando has a degree in forest management and is a certified arborist for the Oregon Department of Forestry.