THE FORESTS WHERE WE LIVE: Six Life & Death Reasons We Need Our City Trees

About the Author

Nancy J. Hughes is Executive Director of the California Urban Forests Council, the oldest urban forest council in the United States. She is a longtime advocate for greener cities and healthier families.

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).

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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.
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  • 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.


More information

True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City 

The Benefits of Urban Trees

Public Health Benefits of Urban Trees

California Urban Forests Council



  1. R SHER

    Can you help????? UCSF starts cutting down trees on Mount Sutro in August. The ultimate goal is to take out the majority of the trees, which will turn the area from a moist perpetual wind and fog-break, a mountaintop full of oxygen generating beautiful trees. Trees that live til they are 4-500 years old. Tress that Adolph Sutro planted to ameliorate the effects of the scouring winds and sands. Trees that absorb the heavy rains and noise, that are a balm to city souls and an adventure for its citizens. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE HELP!! This area was originally set aside by the Regents of UCSF as a natural area to never be developed. The plans they have now will lead to the degradation of the hillside, and the end of the forest. More info that counters the disinformation spread by the UCSF-pr-propaganda machine here: PLEASE HELP – if only with advice on how to proceed – how to stop the devastation by UCSF, and by SF Rec + Park. THIS AFFECTS ALL OF SAN FRANCISCO. THE DEADLINE APPROACHES – THE CUTTING STARTS IN AUGUST – THE 16 ACRES OWNED BY SF: San Francisco Recreation and Park Department HAS ALREADY BEEN IMPACTED. POISONOUS HERBICIDES ARE ON THE LAND…

  2. Barbara Hobens

    Would be glad to donate a copy of Garden Your City that details the steps to create Adopt-A-Tree programs in city neighborhoods to any local volunteer organization. Street trees are so vital in our cities.

  3. Nancy J. Hughes

    Dear R Sher – we have forwarded on your request to folks we know if SF and asked them to contact you directly. Stand by. Nancy Hughes


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