is the executive director
of TreeLink and cofounder
of the National Alliance
for Community Trees
Driven by unprecedented population growth, communities across America are struggling to keep pace with essential services. Urban planners seek sustainable solutions for unchecked sprawl and tangible ways to save energy. But we've learned there is no "magic bullet" to solve air, water and soil pollution.
This Arbor Day, however, we have the knowledge to create communities that can grow both economically and environmentally, and we have the communication technology to share that knowledge far and wide.
Like an acorn that becomes an oak, it begins in a very small way, with a simple act: planting a tree.
Community trees, a powerful indicator species of a healthy urban environment, are no longer just "nice to have." They are the only element of the urban infrastructure that actually appreciates in value even if the rest depreciates.
Urban forestry, also called community forestry, combines strategic planting with environmental stewardship education to create the green infrastructure for sustainable communities. It's easy to embrace and fast to grow. It could put environmentalists and political conservatives on the same page.
Sure and steady, this movement is expanding its canopy of benefits while bringing together a remarkable cross-section of supporters from every segment of society.
More than 80 percent of Americans live in urbanized areas, census figures say. If, as Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson says, "the number-one threat to plant and animal life is loss of habitat," the same principle would apply to people.
Coincidentally, an estimated 80 percent of community trees nationwide are on private property, so the public have a key role and personal responsibility for the environment in which most of us live.
The challenge is to awaken the American public to support their local community forests, which are disappearing at alarming rates. That's why urban forestry groups are working to combine the "old technology" of tree planting with new technology to reach residents.
Philadelphia lost 200,000 shade trees between 1976 and 2004, according to estimates in a 2004 study by forestry consultants. The city has half the number of street trees as Baltimore and one-third as many as Chicago. That's why Philadelphia's Next Great City project is beseeching the next mayor to replant 23,000 neighborhood trees.
Conservative forecasts predict that nine billion people will inhabit this planet by 2025. Hamlets will become villages, and villages will become towns. One day, we wake up and find that our little home town has become a city. In the process, the "natural environment" is profoundly altered by impervious surfaces, including blacktop, concrete, and buildings that dominate the landscape.
Don Willeke, a Minnesota lawyer, former American Forests president, and champion of tree-planting for three decades, says, "To hell with beautification. We plant trees for economic, social and environmental reasons."
Politicians everywhere are experimenting with strategies for urban infrastructure, but few that everyone can agree on, fewer still that actually bring people together. None is so easy and painless as the simple act of planting a tree.