Alliance for Community Trees News

Interview: The Social Value Of Urban Trees

By Conni Kunzler | May 15, 2017

Source: “Expert Q&A: Morgan Grove, U.S. Forest Service,” Leaf Litter

Baltimore, MD (Spring, 2017) – Biohabitat’s Leaf Litter talks to Dr. Morgan Grove, Team Leader for the USDA Forest Service’s Baltimore Urban Field Station, about social, public health, and environmental benefits of urban trees. What is the social value of urban trees to a community? What do we know?

Dr. Grove helped develop the Forest Service’s Urban Tree Canopy (UTC) Assessments Program, and he has authored numerous papers related to urban ecology, environmental justice, and the social aspects of urban forestry. He is co-author of The Baltimore School of Urban Ecology, a book which draws on two decades of pioneering social and ecological studies in Baltimore to propose a new way to think about cities and their social, political, and ecological complexity.

I have seen you referred to as an urban forester, a research scientist, and a social scientist. What do you call yourself?

I call myself a social scientist. Die-hard disciplinary social scientists might say that what I do doesn’t look like anything they do, but I am okay with that. My job is to do interdisciplinary work on things that are useful for people to make decisions. Many social scientists have done things that are not applied, and that is not something I aspire to do.

We are now at the point where we can model some of the ecosystem and public health services provided by trees in dollar amounts. How much do we really know about the social value of urban trees—how they contribute to things like community cohesion, education, safety, and quality of life?

The Chief of the Forest Service [Tom Tidwell] was here a couple of weeks ago talking about just that. He said that we need to feel more comfortable making the case for what we do in non-economic terms. We know a lot about the social value of trees. Tree-lined areas are shaded and attractive. They make it nicer and more comfortable for people to be outside, which then increases interactions among people. That is one mechanistic way that trees help build social capital and cohesion. Tree planting is also an organizing tool. Do we organize people to plant trees, or do we plant trees to organize people? It’s not an either-or question; the answer is “yes.”

Trees also have symbolic value. There are plenty of neighborhoods where crime is seen but not reported. A tree says “Hey, this is a nice neighborhood where people are organized.” A tree can be like a neighborhood watch sign that says to criminals, “If you try to do something here, you are likely to be seen and people will do something about it.”

Because trees are long-lived, they also help connect people to a place and to the past. If you say, “Let’s go clean up this forest patch, because it will be really important in the future,” the response is: crickets (silence). If you say, “This forest patch has been here for 150 years. Let’s go clean it up!” the response is, “Yeah!” Knowing the history of a place can be very motivating.

I was once showing a reporter from New Haven, CT some vacant lots that had been converted into community gardens, and he asked, “Are these gardens really addressing the food issue here? Why do this?” I said, “Look at your necktie. Why wear it? Maybe it keeps your shirt from getting stained by gravy, but really, it’s part of your outfit, your uniform. It makes you feel important. Well, this community garden is the neighborhood necktie. It helps people feel like their neighborhood is important and worth something.” Trees do the same thing.

That symbolic value seems like something that is hard to quantify, yet quantification might matter to a funder, no?

It might, but I think quantification can be a sloppy and lazy replacement for actually having a real conversation with that funder. We have been doing market behavior research on tree planting in Baltimore. We go into neighborhoods with trees and without trees and we ask people, “How do you feel about yourself? How do you feel about your neighborhood?” and we see differences. When we tease out other factors that may affect how they feel about their neighborhood, we see the environment coming out very strongly. Across the city, people in neighborhoods with tree plantings say things like, “When you have trees, it makes you feel good about yourself, and that your neighborhood should be respected.”

Let’s talk about some of the negative perceptions of urban trees. A colleague recently said, “Many people still don’t understand the value of trees in our cities. I’ve had residents in some neighborhoods tell me that they don’t want trees. Reasons range from ‘someone might hide behind it and shoot me’ to ‘it collects trash’ to ‘I don’t want bird crap on my car.’” What have you found to be the most common misperceptions or negative perceptions of urban trees?

Those are not misperceptions. They are real, and you could add others. People also hate leaves because they don’t want to rake them, and they hate roots, because the roots get into their water lines. Other reasonable complaints include “Planting trees will lead to gentrification,” “Why are you planting trees when you can’t take care of the ones you already have?” and “Why are you spending all of this money on trees, when we have so many other social problems?”

All of those concerns are fair, and you can’t say, “Those concerns are irrelevant,” “Not my job,” or “I’m here to do the trees. Get with the program.” It all comes back to community development. You have to communicate that the trees are part of larger concerns, and that you are willing to take on the larger concerns.

With crime, we know from research that criminals do hide behind shrubs planted around foundations, so concerns about vegetation and crime are partially justifiable. But in many cases, trees reduce crime. You must be willing to talk about that, and even do some role play. I’ll actually go stand behind a tree and ask, “Can you see me? How am I doing on that hiding thing?” But if I go stand behind a pine tree with low branches, their concern is clear.

In 2012, you published a study on the relationships between tree canopy and crime rates. I was going to ask about your findings-if they were relevant to other cities and if they are getting out to the public. But it sounds like you’re saying that may not even matter. What matters is having conversations about this-with funders and with community members.

Yes, and there are two places where you have to be willing to have that conversation. One is when you’re working with the people in an individual community. The other is with the police department; talking about how a tree planting program is actually a crime prevention program.

Forestry divisions in cities need to be able to make the case that what they do is related to community and neighborhood development. This goes back to what our Chief was saying: have the conversation around what engages people. Rather than talking about data and the economic value of trees, which can be distancing, talk about these facts.

With this crime discussion, start with “We know you want a safe neighborhood, and we’re here to be part of that effort. Here are some of the ways we think we can help you make a safe neighborhood.” You might even need to bring the regional police commander with you. With concerns about roots and water pipes, say, “Yes, the roots of these trees might get into your pipes, so that’s why it’s important to find out where the pipes are and not plant the tree over the pipes.” With leaves, say, “If leaves are a problem and you can’t rake them, let’s talk about how we can engage the Boy Scouts, or come up with some other neighborhood solution.”

You mentioned concerns about gentrification. A study published last summer in Ecological Economics showed that tree cover may contribute to increased property value. This seems like a good thing. But a in 2015 study you coauthored, which looked at distributional equity of urban tree canopy, states that “Residents in low income neighborhoods might reasonably resist increases in UTC cover to avoid gentrification and rising rent.” How do you deal with that?

So much of this is about process, and the need to approach tree planting as a community development conversation. There are some neighborhoods in Baltimore where community members say, “We need to diversify this neighborhood. We need younger families, more racial diversity, more affluent people, more businesses.” That sounds like gentrification, but it isn’t when the community has control over the process and the outcomes. Whether purposely or part of a market process, gentrification is most often externally driven and done to the community, not with the community. The outcomes of gentrification and diversification may feel similar, but it’s who controls the process and outcomes that matters. Communities want control over what happens where they live. There are neighborhoods in Baltimore, particularly those that had been redlined, where the value of homes has not increased in over 80 years. Those residents may think “I’d love it if the value of my home went up $200,000, but I don’t want to be displaced by the taxes.” There are policy instruments to address these things. If major investments are made with the community that produce increased economic value, there is no reason that a city can’t protect people it’s from becoming displaced.

As a forester, my job is not only to think and talk about these things, but to say, “Let’s work on it and take on these issues.” Currently, trees are not a huge player in neighborhood transformations, but as a forester, I can advocate with the community.

Read the full interview: “Expert Q&A: Morgan Grove, U.S. Forest Service,” Leaf Litter

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