Mounting Evidence of the Value of Urban Trees

via Bull City Mutterings by Reyn on 10/11/11

Researchers in the Pacific Northwest have quantified the importance of urban street trees on rental values using Craigslist apartment listings in Portland, Oregon and tree data from Google Earth.

“Each tree on a house’s lot increases monthly rent by $5.62 and a tree in the public right of way increased rent by $21.00.”

One of the researchers, economist Geoffrey Donovan of the U.S. Forest Service had already linked the presence of urban trees to lower crime rates (particularly large, mature trees,) healthier newborns, energy conservation and pollution control as well as an an average $8,900 increase in the sales price for property.  Sometimes the benefits accrue even if the trees are next door.

The linkages hold true even when the researchers control for other factors that determine a neighborhood’s desirability.  Other researchers with the Federal Highway Administration have also been able to quantify the value of roadside trees along the National Highway System.

Portland, Oregon, where the study was conducted, has a 26% urban tree canopy remaining but hopes to increase it to 33% by planting 415,000 trees.

While some areas of the country strive to increase their urban tree canopy, other areas are seeing significant decreases in theirs.  For example, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina including Charlotte, the state’s largest city conducted a study through American Forests to quantify the value of its remaining 51% of urban tree canopy, a full third of which has been lost since 1993.

The tree canopy in Wake County, North Carolina’s second largest and home to the state capital Raleigh has been reduced to 44% tree cover even though its land area is two to three times the size of counties at other points of the broad Research Triangle Area.

Still fifty-one-percent forested and above average for urban areas in North Carolina, nearby Durham County was fortunate to limit loss to its tree canopy to 2% while growing another 20% in population over the past decade.

Making this even more remarkable is the fact that Durham County is the 17th smallest land area in the state, while the 6th most populous.  Additionally, Durham County is even more compact because more than a third of the land area has been set aside in low-density watershed even though the County is host to the City of Durham, the fifth most populous urban area.

Indeed, Durham is well deserving of the moniker: “The City of Trees,” a place where activists conduct “Tree Camps” and Duke Professor Will Wilson has published a new primer on urban environments and an Durham Tree Alliance is under development.

Ironically, as North Carolina’s urban cities and counties are catching on to the value of tree canopy, the State General Assembly, under new ownership is apparently eager to reclaim the state’s once-fading reputation as backward by authorizing massive clear cutting along roadsides, not to make what remains of the state’s vaunted scenery more apparent but as a public gratuity to the 8,000 outdoor billboards.

Hopefully, sometime within the next 87 months before the 100th anniversary of his passing, voters of every ideology will rededicate America to the object of a great Republican’s object of deep spiritual significance.

Developer Character

via Bull City Mutterings by Reyn on 10/18/11

I ran across two examples last week that illustrate how developers can either imbue sense of place or desecrate it.

A community’s unique sense of place is about the distinct weave of the “built” (man-made,) “natural”, “cultural” and “value” (temporal personality traits) characteristics that compose its character.

These elements are often referred to as “place-based assets.”  To thrive, the “built or man-made” element must live in harmony with and complement the “natural” and “cultural.”  This requires developers who honor, respect and, in the words of Dr. Scott Russell Sanders, “long to love the places in which we live and live in places worthy of love…”

Now for my two examples, both in my adopted hometown of Durham, North Carolina, a community with both an incredible and scientifically well-documented sense of community pride and a distinct sense of place:

  • First, an illustration of both the fragility and vulnerability of that sense of place.  Reminded to remove some vacated houses, a developer has also deforested an entire hillside along Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd between SW Durham Blvd and Mt. Moriah Road, denuding it of any aesthetic value as well as carbon sequestration, run-off prevention, pollution removal as well as lowering future rental rates and property values.

There is certain to be some finger-pointing over codes and buffers but hopefully, state and local ordinances will be updated to value trees as more than just pulp and incentivize compensatory urban reforestation including large specimen replacements in both the public interest and as good economics and property stewardship.

  • Now for an example of a developer who understands and reveres and contributes to sense of place:  Gary Kueber not only heads Scientific Properties and specializes in adaptive reuse of historic buildings but in his spare time posts thousands of historic photographs of buildings along with well-researched background information about related people, places and neighborhoods on a blog titled Endangered Durham.

Gary, a former physician-turned-urban-planner-turned developer has created and launched a new website called Open Durham which not only organizes but also inventories and maps all that he did in Endangered Durham plus he permits others with similar interests and concerns to create and add content.

Being a developer isn’t easy, I’m sure.  I’m also certain that regulations and ordinances can always be improved and streamlined.  But gutting them as Republican majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and the NC General Assembly are trying to do with hundreds of votes in the past year is not only reckless, it is stupid economically.

Developers must accept the fact that people don’t just buy homes and rent offices.  They live and work in the communities and neighborhoods where developments exist and at the very essence, they also “long to love the places in which we live and live in places worthy of love…”

It isn’t the laws that protect water, air and forestation that should be eliminated, it is developers who won’t respect them.

A Sense of Place Alliance

via Bull City Mutterings by Reyn on 10/25/11

Planning officials where I live in Durham, North Carolina will soon begin a periodic review, overhaul and update of landscape/tree coverage standards.  With mounting evidence of the many different benefits provided by urban tree canopy, it will be a great opportunity to calibrate those standards to:

  • Aesthetics (Now proven essential to economic development, resident attachment and talent retention.)
  • Crime Reduction
  • Mental and Physical Health
  • Rental, Homeowner and Commercial Property Values
  • Carbon Sequestration
  • Air and Water Purification (especially storm water run off)

This review is also an opportunity to generate reforestation elsewhere in the community equivalent to what is destroyed by development, hopefully at a ratio much greater than 1 to 1.  Adding a sense of urgency for Durham is the realization that this is the state’s fifth most populous urban area and  the state’s sixth most populous county but within the 17th smallest in land area.

However, there is no reason Durham’s tree canopy can not only be reforested to compensate for development but increased beyond the current 96,240 acres of tree canopy  based on just the benefits noted above.

A worthy near-term goal would be to reverse the decline in tree cover and to increase it back up to an even 100,000 acres which would cover just 2% more of the County.  Long term, it would be good to index the growth of tree cover to population and additional development, making allowances for preservation of the 26,000 acres of cropland remaining.

Experts have calculated that to offset the carbon generated by Durham would require an impossible 1.3 acres of trees per resident but a reasonable goal would be to strive for .70 acres per urban resident or a tree canopy of 169,000 acres which could include reforestation of lower income areas.

This would add to the 51% of the County and 40% of the City currently covered by trees.  To help achieve this goal, it also seems like a good time for Durham to elevate reforestation as a direct or indirect use of impact fees from developers in areas such as open space, trees along roadways etc.

Fueling a sense of urgency, even in less compact communities is that the financing of local services and infrastructure is far too over-reliant on the long-out-dated system of real estate property taxes, first established in this country only out of sheer convenience as early as the mid-1600s and already labeled as long ago as 1895 as “one of the worst taxes ever used by a civilized nation.”

The property tax over-incentivizes the public sector toward development and blinds both the public and private sectors with a false sense of security that belies the erosion of other elements that are even more critical to sustainable growth and quality of place such as  preservation and conservation of open space, tree canopy, farmland and historic and cultural assets.

As an example other than tree canopy, according to Durham resident and Duke ecology professor Will Wilson, the author of a new book entitled Constructed Climates – A Primer on Urban Environments, Durham farmland has decreased from 140,000 acres in 1910 on 1600 farms to only 26,000 acres today on the 250 farms that remain predominantly in hay fields that like grasslands provide lots of water quality benefits.

People with both an understanding about the importance of and a passion for preservation of a community’s unique sense of place including open space, cropland, urban forestry and historic structures are frequently frustrated by poor land-use decisions and often fall into the self-defeating trap of either trying to preserve everything or block every threat.

Trying to defend everything just doesn’t work and it dissipates energies and increases public and private sector costs with only token although important results.

These energies are better focused into identifying and securing specific properties and areas to preserve for open space including cropland, as archeologically or historically or culturally significant along with overarching aspects as scenic preservation, tree cover and overall appearance.

While the array of organizations and initiatives involved must retain areas of focus and specialization, each of them must be aware of and interweave support of the others through overarching and interwoven strategies. This includes organizations such as land trusts, conservancies, farmland and watershed stewards, preservationists including both historic and scenic as well as appearance advocates.

Maybe DCVB with a mission that includes being the official “guardian of its unique sense of place” and a supporting role as the “steward the sustainability of place-based assets” should use its considerable nationally-recognized expertise at forming and facilitating coalitions and strategic partnerships to form an alliance of these partners just as it did for those involved in communications and other several other groups of stakeholders.

What could be more relevant and the Durham Unique Sense of Place Alliance has a nice ring (DUSPA.)

The Felonious Depravity of Visual Blighters

via Bull City Mutterings by Reyn on 10/24/11

Marketers are ashamed and a few, dating back to “Madmen” pioneers such as David Ogilvy and Howard Gossage, have warned in books and speeches about the visual blight created by huge, obsolete outdoor advertising billboards.

But visual blight is well, visual, so in his spare time veteran marketing-video producer Ossian Or of DoubleOMedia visually documents this depravity as he did a few weeks ago with the video posted earlier this month and embedded in this blog.

It documents the most recent cases of felonious tree poisoning, this time in Florida, but that have also occurred in North Carolina and many other states over many years.

Marketers, especially those in my former profession of community/destination marketing must move beyond shame and begin to lead the charge to educate internal and external stakeholders about the irreparable harm this visual blight does to the character and unique sense of place of the communities and states they market.

A good first step would be to ask the primary beneficiaries of that sense of place to join with a community/destination marketing organization as a signatory to Scenic Stewardship Pledge.