Trees, and the value they add to our community, have been on my mind lately. I’m extremely fortunate to live in a neighborhood where mature trees are the norm and my neighbors sincerely appreciate and adore their trees. As evidence of this love, see exhibit A below.

Exhibit A: This sign appeared a few weeks before a 70+ year old pine was removed from a neighbor's yard.

An adoration and appreciate for beautiful trees isn’t a new thing. Nor is the realization that trees add value to our lives. I’ve heard so many stories of people receiving fulfillment through the presence and beauty of their favorite oak tree. Similarly, there are plenty of stories of heartbreak due to the loss of a tree; it’s not quite the loss of a pet, but it can be comparable.

The fact that trees improve property values is also not a new concept. This 1980 study summarized in the Journal of Arboriculture  showed that in the area studied (Manchester, CT), if a house had good tree cover, as much as six to nine percent of the total sales price of that home can be attributed to good tree cover. A more recent broader study on the value of nature from the University of Washington’s Green Cities: Good Health program found that the presence of larger trees adds value to residential values, directly relates to higher commercial rental rates, and could cause shoppers to spend more. There are several more studies with similar findings on property value and the like. The case is pretty clear.

Similarly, we’re now starting to see evidence that there’s a correlation between income levels and tree cover. Tim DeChat, who blogs at Per Square Mile, recently highlighted a two-year-old study that found a strong relationship between higher tree cover and higher income. In essence, the better the tree cover in your neighborhood, the more likely it is that incomes are higher.

The explanation, posit the authors, is that wealthier property owners and city governments can afford to plant more trees. Makes good, logical sense to me. I don’t foresee a causal relationship between tree cover and income (you’re not going to start earning more simply because you moved to a dense forest). Nevertheless, I think it’s immensely important that cities look for ways to increase tree cover. There are several benefits trees provide, above and beyond what value they add to our property or income levels. Just a few include:

  • Provide shade from the boiling hot summer sun (duh)
  • Clean the air and sequester carbon
  • Serve as a traffic calming devices
  • Reduce stress
  • Fight crime
  • Provide an in-your-backyard opportunity to learn about nature (I’ve been taking “nature walks” with my daughter since she was only a few months old)
  • Trees were the original jungle gym

DeChant took the study’s results a step further and grabbed two Google Earth images from a few cities to do a little unscientific compare and contrast of their higher income neighborhoods versus lower income neighborhoods to see if he could tell the difference just from the images. The results were pretty clear, which got me thinking about the same exercise in Omaha. I compared my neighborhood (Midtown) to what is largely considered to be the poorest section of town, North Omaha. The images are below. Can you tell which is which?

Option One: Midtown or North Omaha?

 Or…

Option Two: Midtown or North Omaha?

The answer: the top image is from North Omaha; bottom image from Midtown.

A couple things jump out at me. First, it’s difficult to measure tree cover when the images were taken in winter. The leaves are gone and you don’t get a good sense for the true tree cover. (If anyone has a better mapping system with spring, summer or fall images, please share.) Secondly, the noticeable difference between the two areas was the number of vacant lots in North Omaha. That’s another topic for another day, although there are some pretty interesting things you can do with vacant lots to ensure that they’re adding value to a community, rather than detracting from it.

Needless to say, we love trees. I love trees. I used to live in West Omaha in a brand new home with only one little ash tree in the front yard. I now live in a 1920s home surrounded by a cornucopia of tall, beautiful trees. I’m lucky to live where I do, but I also hope that we can find a way to continue giving the gift of trees throughout Omaha.

Tonight is a particularly good night to start discussing the topic when I’ll be attending another great event hosted by our friends at Emerging Terrain. It is the first in their ET Talks series and the topic is Public Space and what it means in Omaha. It promises to be a fascinating discussion, and I hope, at least once or twice, we talk about how important trees and the natural environment are. If I have anything to do with it, we certainly will.

Onward and upward.