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Green Infrastructure: How Cities Can Finance Tree Planting

Did you know that trees have been on the decline in cities? US Cities are reportedly losing 4 million trees a year. 20 major cities were observed over a number of years and results show an annual 1.5% fall in tree coverage, with New Orleans suffering the biggest tree coverage decrease - with a 9% loss of its canopy. Sadly trees are seen as ‘luxury’ and not a priority in many cities, which puts city dwellers at a grave disadvantage as trees are an asset to urban health. There is compelling evidence that shows how trees provide numerous mental and physical health benefits to city dwellers subjected to concrete ridden environments. So how can cities develop innovative financial strategies to plant more trees? We explore the possibilities.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of Rob Bye/Unsplash


The World Health Organization(WHO) has revealed that it would take an estimated annual contribution of $58 per person worldwide to achieve a healthier world by 2030. One of the cheapest, yet overlooked investments that could strengthen health and environmental systems in cities in particular is simply planting trees.

Economic And Ecological Benefits Of Planting More Trees In Cities

City planners reportedly see trees as aesthetical improvements to cities, however they are an invaluable investment for a city. The diagram below illustrates just how much trees contribute to our health and ecosystem, some we may not have ever considered. Trees absorb harmful air pollutants, reducing premature deaths worldwide; they prevent urban heat island effect; they purify and help store water; they provide shelter for many animal species that are in danger of extinction due to deforestation among others.

Image courtesy of The Nature Conservatory

Concerning the economical impact, 22 studies have concluded that the benefits of planting trees in cities far outweigh the costs. One of these benefits, “aesthetic and amenity”, actually outweighed mean annual costs even when considered alone. A study conducted in California found that every $1 spent on planting trees brought a return of approximately $5.82 in public benefits. An inventory software i-Tree, was developed to evaluate their worth and found that the state’s canopies was worth approximately $1 billion in benefits to cities and residents, which breaks down to:

  • $10 million in carbon storage;

  • $18 million in removing air pollutants;

  • $41.5 million in catching rainfall;

  • $101 million in energy savings; and

  • $839 million in boosting property values.

Seeing these benefits, the question remains - how can cities deploy inventive investment strategies for planting and maintaining trees on a micro and larger scale?

Innovative Financial Strategies To Incorporate Trees In The Urban Landscape

1 | Investing In Public Health

As trees are seen as a luxury, they are less prioritized in municipality budgeting decisions. TNC cities scientist Rob McDonald believes that given the indisputable evidence of their health benefits, trees need to be categorized as public health infrastructure and therefore included as part of the public health budget. He further expresses the need to bridge the gap between the urban forestry sector and public health sector and create financial linkages between the two. “If public health spending in cities increased by just 0.1% or $10 per person, that would create enough public investment to finance the maintenance and expansion of urban forests and deliver the resulting health benefits.” says TNC cities scientist Rob McDonald.

2 | Developing Strategic Tools

In order to ensure that a city tree planting project has a significant impact, it is important to integrate trees in optimal locations. Technological devices such as the Melbourne Urban Forest Map showing individual data of all 70,000 trees that the City of Melbourne maintains. This visual data enables the city to identify ideal locations within the city to plant trees for best results. The data includes: the different species of the existing trees (tree diversity is crucial to preventing disease and pest threats); the useful life expectancies (estimating how long a tree is likely to remain healthy); planting schedules monitoring the rate of tree planting in each street. Such tools could enable cities to strategically invest in trees and monitor those investments.

Image courtesy of City of Melbourne

3 | A Multilayered Urban Planning Program, The Example Of Toronto

The city of Toronto has been actively working toward sustaining and increasing its canopy cover using a multilayered urban planning strategy - implementing a variety of policies, bylaws, management activities, guidelines and programmes under the Strategic Forest Management Plan. The city hopes to increase its tree canopy cover from 27% to 40% and are currently targeting public and semi-public land exclusively and are working on developing a private-public partnership funding model to ensure they reach their goal. In conjunction with this model, Private Tree Establishment Programs are also being put in place as a majority of the city’s land base is private property. With these combined efforts, together with public outreach programmes, Toronto is well on its way to reaching its $0% goal.

Image courtesy of Sandro Schuh/Unsplash

4 | Encouraging Citizen Action

As tree planting benefits the entire urban community, it only makes sense to involve citizens in the funding. Los Angeles’ Free Tree Programmes is an innovative initiative working with public and private stakeholders to provide free trees. The non-profit organization has a number of programmes designed to seamlessly connect private and public property owners with trees, one being the Free Shade Tree Delivery programme that delivers up to 7 free shade trees directly to property owners (along with fertilizer, pellets, etc). Alternatively they also have a tree adoption events as well as offer free trees to parkways and businesses with the stipulation that they are in charge of tree maintenance. This non-profit reportedly gives away 15,000 trees a year - a giant leap forward for urban health!

Image courtesy of City Plants

Although there have been great improvements in female representation in the build environment industry, currently most architects, planners and policy makers are still men, with women in more supporting roles. It is a simple as this - if women are in decision making positions in the built environment fields, women will be accounted for in all aspects of urban design. “I think it’s important to have women not only at the table, but women running the meeting, setting the table, bringing voices in and leading” explained Lynn Ross, former vice president of Community and National Initiatives (CNI) program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Vienna is a good example as the city has developed more inclusive planning strategy since the early 1990s. The city’s project called Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City), saw a major improvement in the urban landscape - green spaces were integrated into living spaces, which were built in close to kindergartens schools, pharmacies, and doctors offices were included. The city also improved connectivity to public transit. The project also extended outside of living spaces, city planners widened sidewalks, lit paths and alleyways, and redesigned public parks - creating a much safer city for women.

5 | Developing Eco-friendly Business Models

The Ecosia Project is a brilliant eco-friendly search engine that invests Ad revenue towards planting trees. Ecosia has a free browser extension that operates like any other search engine. With a reported 7 million active users generating Ad revenue, Ecosia has raised and invested almost $7 million into planting 25 million trees! The non-profit business hopes to plant 1 billion trees by only takes 1.1 secs to plant a tree - with more active users they reach this goal.

Image courtesy of Ecosia

The examples above show that it really ‘takes a village’, as the benefits from trees affect all sectors, collaboration between the public and private sector is key and will reap more benefits for all. Sources of funding for tree infrastructure are vast, it just takes a shift in perspective, communication and collaboration across sectors and disciplines.

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