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The importance of urban tree cover

Photo Dean
via Flickr

With leaves on the ground and snow falling, trees in upstate New York are becoming dormant for the winter, but urban tree cover is still important.

As many urban areas become more populated or new buildings are constructed, urban trees are often chopped down. Most cities in the country are losing tree cover. And it has consequences.

"Trees are not just decorative. They’re infrastructure. And hence, they’re important for that reason," said Emanuel Carter, a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Trees clean the air, keep cities cool and stop soil erosion and runoff. They also help property values. Surveys of urban forestry in cities like Washington, D.C., finds more trees are located in wealthier neighborhoods. Trees both add to property value and home owners in wealthier neighborhoods tend to care for trees better. 

"That’s often not the case when you’re looking at people who are in rental housing," said Carter. "And especially if you look at people who are in rental housing and are at the bottom of the economy."

It’s a tough life to be an urban tree. If it’s not construction, road salt, smog and vandalism call spell a tree’s demise. Many Syracuse neighborhoods lost trees from the middle of the century through the 1990s, according to Carter.

Syracuse is still recovering from the Labor Day storm of 1998, which toppled thousands of trees. The city has gained back some trees since then, but much of it has been an invasive tree, the European buckthorn.

Carter is leading a program next year to plant 160 trees in the Southwest neighborhood of Syracuse. It’s not a lot, but the hope is his team will be able to work with homeowners to plant more vegetation and care for the trees.

"It’s an easy investment to make and a worthy investment to make, so let’s get the low-hanging fruit and do what we can in the short term, while we are working on the longer term goals," he said.

Projects like Onondaga County’s Save The Rain are also working to plant more hardy trees.

Syracuse’s population has declined in recent decades. Carter says now empty properties offer an opportunity to increase urban forestry in a smart way.