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“Per tree, you’re getting way more value for an urban tree than a tree out in the wild,” says Mark McPherson, founder and director of a Seattle nonprofit called City Forest Credits. In an increasingly urbanizing world, cities are, after all, “right where people live and breathe and recreate.”
Trees—and urban trees in particular—provide enormous benefits. For starters, they’re responsible for producing oxygen and removing CO2 and other pollutants from the air. Urban forests in the U.S. remove an estimated 75,000 tons of air pollution per year. They reduce the impact of falling rain and encourage that water to soak into the ground, reducing flooding and erosion as well as preventing pollution from entering waterways. And the shade they provide isn’t just good for picnics; trees absorb heat and release water vapor that cools the surrounding air. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that trees reduce the energy consumption needed to cool homes in the U.S. by more than 7%.
To find out just how much one tree can do, you can even estimate the value of the benefits of a specific tree near you using this calculator developed by a collaboration of tree experts and nonprofits.
The trouble is that these benefits are not equitably distributed. “Nationally, there’s a trend for trees to follow wealth,” says Leslie Berckes, the director of programs for Trees Forever, a nonprofit environmental group that works with communities across Iowa and Illinois to plant and care for trees. She says wealthier communities tend to have more trees for a variety of reasons, including racist housing practices. “Redlining left a lot of scars on communities, one of those being less green space, less tree cover,” Berckes says.
And the results are life-threatening. In the absence of trees, these urban areas tend to be concrete—either buildings or sidewalks or streets. These impervious surfaces absorb heat during the day and then release it at night, preventing the relief of cooling temperatures, and creating urban heat islands. “People are getting sick or dying from heat,” Berckes says, “and their utility bills are going up. … Heat is the biggest killer from [a] natural disaster perspective.”
Building Community by Planting Trees
To better support the health of these communities, Berckes’ organization employs local teenagers to plant and care for trees. Trees Forever pays a starting rate of $10 an hour—higher than the state’s minimum wage of $7.25—and then bumps it up to $15 an hour for crew leaders. In addition, Trees Forever provides teens with professional development resources such as resume-building, mock interviews, financial literacy courses, stress management tools, and shadowing professionals in green jobs. Although COVID-19 has paused some of these activities, the organization sees this multifaceted support as an investment in a local workforce that will then have the knowledge and skills to continue the important work of tree-planting for building healthier communities.
Dawud Benedict, 18, has been planting trees with Trees Forever since the fall of 2020. He applied after hearing about a friend’s positive experience working with the organization. “It just sounded nice to do something more for Des Moines area,” he says. The work has taught him to appreciate trees and their benefits to the community and the world, he says, as well as to work together as a group. He enjoys being able to drive past work sites and point out trees that he helped plant in his community. “I feel like I’m making a bigger impact,” he says.
In recent years, Trees Forever has endeavored to put equity at the center of their work through training and education, though Berckes admits that a lot more work must be done. “Our own staff is all White,” she says. “Iowa is a predominantly White state. When we go to work with some of these small towns, I bet the percentage of White people is 80 to 90-or-more percent.” Much of the group’s…