Can you imagine a great neighborhood without trees and green spaces? It’s a simple truth that great neighborhoods have character, rooted in the trees, parks and green spaces that help make the places we live feel like home. But there’s more.
America’s urban populations are growing. The 2010 U.S. Census shows that 93 percent of Americans live in metropolitan or micropolitan areas (smaller cities with suburban development).
These cities have what is called “gray infrastructure” in place to support us so we have water for spigots and sewers, electricity for our appliances, and roads for our commerce. They also provide numerous other public services, including police and fire, parks and schools.
But these cities also have “green infrastructure,” from the public and private trees that line our streets to the parks – home to our picnics and morning walks. Unfortunately, city leaders often overlook the many benefits and urban ecosystem services that these public and private green spaces provide.
A Budget Cut We Can’t Afford
Especially during these tough economic times, green infrastructure and the services that support it can often be the first to go. Understandably, “essential services” (mainly fire and police forces) receive what little budget municipalities have, but broadening the definition of essential services would serve our communities well.
The truth is that our green infrastructure is not just “nice to have.” These trees, parks and green spaces provide real, quantifiable benefits crucial to the health and wealth of our cities and the people who live in them.
You might not think there is nature in your midst. I’ve noticed that, as a society, we perceive nature to be “out there” rather than here where we raise our families and run our businesses. We think of it as a place we have to “go to” for a getaway. But, the reality is that if you live in a city, you almost definitely dwell in what’s known as an urban ecosystem.
An Investment Worth Making
I encourage you to take a moment to observe and appreciate what green infrastructure in your community is doing for you and your family. Think about why, more than ever, we need to invest the resources necessary to grow and maintain our trees and green spaces. A few reasons for you to consider:
- They’re cheap, highly effective medicine: Access to green spaces increases opportunities for physical activity, which prevents heart disease, type 2 diabetes and many other health issues.(Source)
- They’re money-saving machines: Trees save our cities millions by cleaning our air and water, managing our stormwater, reducing crime and slowing traffic—all services a city would otherwise have to fund. (Source)
- They’re the perfect home improvement project: When planted strategically, trees can both reduce energy bills and improve property values by up to 20 percent respectively.
- They’re slowing climate change: Trees are a low-tech carbon sequestration solution, actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions where much of the carbon is produced: in our cities.
- They’re an outdoor classroom: Our kids can focus their curiosity and sense of wonder watching the seasons change, flowers and fruits form, and ants parading while harvesting aphids; in their own science laboratory. They can bask in the shade and coolness and imagine all things possible while propped on a branch, reading a book, and treasuring a songbird.
- They’re neighborhood nature: Street, park and yard trees and plants are all the nature that some children may ever have, because limited family resources do not allow for access to the “out there.”
How does this all tie together? Projected U.S. population growth through 2050 is as high as 462 million, a nearly 50 percent increase from our 2010 population of about 309 million. This increase in population will mean an increased burden on our cities’ housing, transportation, medical care and other public services. It will also put even greater strain on our natural resources and already damaged environment.
We will face increasingly tough choices about resources. If we’re not smart in making those decisions—if we abandon long-term investments in things like our trees for short-term budget cuts –the quality of life for our children and grandchildren will most certainly suffer.
Continuing to invest in our trees, parks and green spaces isn’t just about preserving our nation’s natural treasures and beauty. Designing our built environments to include investment in green infrastructure will ensure that we can continue to reap the essential benefits and services they provide, from cleaning our air to improving our home values.
We, as citizens and owners of our futures and fates, must commit to the growth of and care for nature in our cities. We must make investments in, and advocate for, the policy changes that are important for human health and well-being in the forests where we live. If and when we do, I guarantee we will get back much more from these investments than we put in.