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Trees

05/21/07 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) In cities like Rutland and New York City, trees are being planted this year in record numbers. But commentator Bill Shutkin reminds us that planting a tree in an urban environment requires a long term commitment.

(SHUTKIN) Last month's devastating storm that left many of Rutland's trees in shambles reminded me of the urban forest I used to call home. I cut my teeth as a treehugger on the mean streets of New York's Lower East Side. Some of my tree-crazy colleagues chose to lash themselves to old-growth Coastal Redwoods in the remote wilds of northern California, but I opted for the chain-linked tangle of the Liz Christie garden in the Bowery. As a member of the Green Guerrillas, one of the nation's oldest urban green groups, I led tours for New Yorker's eager to learn the difference between a linden tree and a lamp post. And I've been doing them ever since, in every city I've lived in.

On each tour, I start with the same simple question: "What's the average life span of a street tree?"

Invariably, the answers are wildly optimistic and, regrettably, wrong. No, it's not thirty years, or twenty, or even ten. The answer, give or take, is seven years. Which explains why I'm both delighted and concerned about the unprecedented push for tree planting in some of our biggest cities like New York, whose plans to grow their urban forest by one million trees over the coming years were recently announced to great fanfare.

One study found that New York's trees provide an annual financial benefit of around $122 million, with every dollar spent on trees generating more than five times that amount in benefits, like providing shade, cleaning polluted run-off and absorbing carbon dioxide, a plus for combating climate change.

But the challenge of city trees has never been about their value; it's about maintaining that value over time, about literally keeping the trees alive. As with any infrastructure investment, the hard part comes after the initial construction is completed - who's going to maintain the trees and how much will that maintenance cost?

The problem with street trees, unlike the trees of Vermont's mountain forests, is that the more you plant, the greater the maintenance required, which is no easy assignment. By their nature, urban trees are almost constantly under threat, from dogs, cars, poor soils and, of course, the weather. Further, caring for city trees demands both expertise and patience; each tree and tree pit is like a single potted plant, needing plenty of attention.

Maintenance is a dirty word when it comes to public investment, but in the case of the urban forest, it's the only thing that matters. Better to have a city of a thousand healthy, mature trees - whose spreading crowns and root systems provide the bulk of the urban forest's benefits -- than a city of a million dying saplings. While we can't do much about the wind and weather, we can hold our cities and ourselves accountable for our trees, not just by planting them, but by tending them - making sure they stick around a good, long time.

Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT.

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