Trees -- More than Woody Plants
Trees have social and economic value, experts say.
Arborists, botanists, naturalists and other tree lovers often tout the ecological services of trees. They clean the air, absorb carbon dioxide and stem stormwater runoff and erosion.
Trees also have social value, the 40 attendees at a Sept. 13 Alexandria forum learned when several experts spoke to the Northern Virginia Urban Forestry roundtable titled “Benefits of Urban Trees: Economic and Social.”
Katrina Krause from the U.S. Forest Service offered examples of trees promoting community engagement.
“We are an instant gratification society,” she said, and caring for trees can be a long-term proposition so people are more motivated if they see a return from their involvement in trees. Putting plants like blueberries or herbs under and around trees can encourage stewardship, she said.
Showing two Williams-Sonoma ads for a $50 herb wreath and $130 hydrangea wreath, she suggested that “interactive landscaping,” in which people grow useable plants around trees, can foster appreciation for trees and provide monetary returns as well.
Steve Coleman, executive director of Washington's Parks and People, decried the “prison yard approach,” brightly-lit, treeless, urban expanses and argued that these areas are less safe than vegetated areas. Safety advocates traditionally maintained that trees and vegetation block police sight lines, but in fact, crime flourishes in those barren areas, he claimed.
He described how planting vegetation in Washington's Meridian Hill Park brought people back because the shade and beauty invited locals to come together. This restoration cut crime by 99 percent, and the park went from the most crime-ridden park in the city to the safest.
“It became a symbol of peace, not violence,” he boasted.
Coleman also recounted the transformation of Northeast Washington’s Marvin Gaye Park, where, over 11 years, 75,000 volunteers worked in an area dominated by public housing and disinvestment, entrapping people in a cycle of poverty. Creating the “village green was pivotal in restoring hope” in that section of the city, he said.
“Investing in trees is investing in crime reduction," he said. "Pride generates empowerment. Our fiscal priorities are missing the boat,” he contended, by spending millions on prison and recidivism. "You in this room are part of prevention. We cannot make neighborhoods safe by totally depending on prisons."
Coleman also made a case for nature as a classroom, maintaining that getting children into nature can reduce obesity and diabetes. In Marvin Gaye Park, youngsters are growing and selling tomatoes and vegetables.
“We set up shop before the drug dealers did in one of most entrenched heroin markets in the city," he said. “Now, a farm market operating for 10 years has displaced drug dealing. We have obstructed our compact with the land. We should be open to restoring that relationship."
Echoing Coleman, Josh Brown, who worked for 23 years in crime prevention with the Fairfax County police, said, “We should ask, what do people need, not what does the manual say? If you build it to look like a prison, do not be surprised if people act like prisoners – they’ll escape, engage in subterfuge, do bad things.” The key is to “get county leaders involved at an early level, to have political leadership.”
Both Brown and Coleman emphasized the importance of forcing local government agencies like parks, police, social services and planning to come together. “The key is busting down the silos," Coleman stressed.
Eleanor Quigley, Mount Vernon’s tree commissioner, said, “It was gratifying to learn how trees invite people to come together, reduce violence, save money and foster smart growth.”
The Northern Virginia Urban Forestry Roundtable is a project of the Virginia Urban Forest Council/Trees Virginia, a nonprofit organization that promotes community forests and the value of trees.