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Boston, MA

Trees Do It.

Trees are integral to most green infrastructure initiatives.  As the organization American Forests has noted, a single tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year; every 5% increase in tree cover can result in an offset of 2% of storm water runoff; and properly placed trees can reduce a building’s cooling costs by up to 30%.  Not surprisingly, the City of Boston’s effort to tackle the varied environmental issues that plague its watersheds—which as the group Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) has noted, includes street flooding, polluted runoff flowing into waterways, overloaded combined sewers, stream bank erosion, and degraded water quality—identifies trees as the basic pillar of its ongoing collaborative effort with groups like the CRWA to implement environmental and aesthetic improvements through green infrastructure that will be effective, efficient, and long-lasting for the city and its residents.  

Boston's Emerald Necklace

Boston’s Emerald Necklace

While trees have for many years been a welcome addition to most urban landscapes in the United States and municipalities have striven to maintain an urban tree canopy for the aesthetic and civic value that it provides, the urban forest canopy has nevertheless suffered and declined throughout the latter part of the 20th century in most large U.S. cites.  As Nowak and Greenfield’s research on urban tree cover has shown, despite tree planting efforts and development of tree canopy goals, tree cover has declined in 19 of the 20 cities studied.  Boston is one of the cities included in the study which saw a decline in tree cover.   

However, Boston’s loss of tree cover is not evenly distributed.  Those areas of the city closest to its downtown, South Boston, and Charlestown show tree cover ranging from 8-12%.  Suburbs west of the center city have tree cover ranging from 40% to 80%.  Boston’s 2008-2014 Open Space Plan recognizes that an overall increase in tree cover provides for an essential green infrastructure tool providing a range of benefits for the city and its residents.  Among these benefits are improved air and water quality, reduction of storm water runoff, and energy savings based on the shading and cooling effect that trees have in the urban landscape.  Hence, the city aims to plant 100,000 trees by 2030 and increase tree cover overall from 29% to 35% by 2030. 

Boston Common and the Public Garden

Boston Common and the Public Garden

Boston’s plan is a good one and acknowledges a key commitment that other cities have recently also recognized in planning for greater tree cover:  that planting trees alone is not sufficient in and of itself to offset the ongoing decline in urban tree cover.  Rather, as the American Planning Association has noted, a sustained effort at stewardship of existing trees, both from local government, non-profit groups, neighborhoods and individuals is essential to maintaining a healthy urban forest.  Moreover, funding of these efforts and ongoing education of the public and development interests regarding the environmental and economic benefits that a healthy and diverse tree canopy can provide, are also crucial elements for sustaining this basic pillar of green infrastructure. 

Time will tell if funding and commitment from communities and local governments to open space, sustainable infrastructure, and urban tree cover will not fall victim to the traditional thinking that green space in urban areas is a mere luxury to be dispensed with in tough economic times.     

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