Alexandria Three years ago this month, the City Council approved the Urban Forestry Master Plan, a far-thinking document intended to increase tree planting and care in the city.
Unfortunately, the Council has failed to take any actions to implement the plan.
The council’s lack of action is disappointing in three respects. First, our tree canopy has declined significantly during the past decade or so. Second, tree planting and care is one of the cheapest and most effective means of improving public health and the environment. Third, the council does not appear to consider trees as an investment.
Consider what the council’s underinvestment means:
1) More air pollution. Because there are fewer trees to absorb pollutants, life is more difficult for people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
2) More water pollution. Tree root systems and the microbes associated with them break down toxic chemicals, but now more of those chemicals wash into local waters and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
3) Hotter summers. A good tree canopy can reduce ambient air temperatures by 10 degrees or more. Our declining tree cover means that fewer people are able to walk or exercise outside during the sweltering summer months.
4) Less than expected real estate values and tax revenues. Many studies have linked trees and higher real estate values. Our already-high real estate values could perhaps be even higher with a greater tree canopy.
In short, a greater city investment would more than pay for itself.
I believe the council cares about trees. It has also struggled with a difficult budget situation in recent years. But the budget situation always seems to be challenging, and even in good times, the city has underinvested in tree planting and care.
This year, the council cut $70,000 from the tree care budget, a very shortsighted move, because newly planted trees that are not watered often die and young trees that are not pruned often result in bigger and costlier problems later on.
The Urban Forestry Master Plan includes many practical recommendations for reversing the decline of our tree canopy, none of which are hugely expensive. A greater investment will be needed, but it can be made over a decade or more.
The plan identified many opportunities for planting more trees, on public and private property. But tree care can be even more important than planting, because it doesn’t make sense to plant a lot of trees if you’re not going to care for them.
In terms of planting, we need to think not necessarily in terms of numbers, but rather in terms of increasing the overall tree canopy. In this respect, fewer but large shade trees can have a greater impact in terms of improving public health and the environment than a lot of cherry or other small flowering trees, no matter how pretty they are in the spring. We need an Alexandria Shade Tree Campaign.
The most important thing is that the council change its mindset and begin thinking of tree planting and care as an investment that more than pays for itself. Unless this happens, we can expect our tree canopy to continue to decline and our public health and the environment to continue to worsen.