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Did you know that 80 percent of Wisconsin's residents live in the forest – the urban forest? Don't let the word "urban" fool you: Communities of all sizes, from Milwaukee to Minong, are part of this vast leafy network.
If you took a look at your community from the air you'd see a network of green between the streets and buildings. The urban forest is all of the trees and other vegetation in and around a city, village or development. It includes trees along streets, in yards, school grounds, parks, riverbanks, cemeteries, vacant lots, utility rights-of-way, adjacent woodlands and anywhere else trees can grow. Shrubs, flowers, vines, ground covers, grasses and a variety of wild plants, animals and microorganisms also are part of the urban forest. Streets, sidewalks, buildings, utilities, soil, topography, climate and, most importantly, people are parts of the urban forest ecosystem.
Trees do more than just beautify your community. They release oxygen that we need to breathe. They absorb and trap carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
A large tree canopy softens the blow from a downpour, allowing rain to gradually soak into the ground. Less runoff reduces flooding, pollution, sedimentation in rivers and lakes, and the need to build bigger storm sewer systems. Increased soil moisture helps recharge local aquifers.
Trees and green space change sunlight into stored energy instead of heat; they bring water up from the soil through transpiration and cool hot cities through evaporation. Trees properly placed around buildings provide shade in summer and insulation in winter, reducing air conditioning bills up to 25 percent and heating bills by 10 to 20 percent. The less energy we use, the more we can reduce pollution from burning fossil fuels.
Trees contribute to a sense of community. They muffle noise and provide places to rest, meet and socialize. Studies have shown that treed landscapes evoke a "relaxation response" in people. Patients recovering from surgery in a room with a view of trees required fewer strong pain relievers, experienced fewer complications and were released from the hospital sooner than those without such a view. Recent research indicates that trees reduce the incidence of violent behavior in nearby residents.
Trees increase property values by five to 20 percent. People linger and shop longer along tree-lined streets. Apartments and offices in wooded areas rent quicker, and have higher and longer occupancy rates. Businesses leasing office space in wooded developments find their workers are more productive and absenteeism is reduced.
Trees in the urban forest may have been taken out of their native habitat and need care to maintain their health, vigor and safety. Restricted growing space, compacted soil, air pollution, dog urine, bicycle locks, lawn mowers, string trimmers, vandals, car bumpers, road salt, weed killers, storms, diseases and insects make life difficult for urban trees. Small wonder that downtown trees live an average of only seven years and suburban trees live only 30 years, compared to over 100 years for many trees in their native habitat.
A community forestry program, whether run by local government, a volunteer tree board or even a private property owner, can provide the management that an urban forest needs.
An effective tree program has four critical elements: community support, adequate funding, ordinances and a clear line of responsibility. An inventory and management plan guide the selection of tree species to be planted, outline regular maintenance such as pruning, tracking pest outbreaks and tree removal, and establish staff training and public awareness goals.
In communities, trees face another deadly foe – the budget ax! Because trees, parks and green space are mistakenly thought to take care of themselves, they are often the first to feel the budget ax. Policy makers must understand that trees provide more than just beauty. They are an integral part of a community. With proper care our "green infrastructure" can increase in value and contribute to our quality of life.
The following information will help you care for your own trees. But the urban forest doesn't stop at your lawn. Get involved in your community's urban forest by starting a neighborhood tree program or volunteering on your local tree board. If your community doesn't have an urban forestry program, help get one started.
Each of us living in a community has a part to play in our environment. The urban forest forms a web that joins us all; caring for it will sustain our lives and our communities.