Urban deforestation and what we can do about it

March 23, 2020

Whilst many think that deforestation happens only in the Amazonian jungle or deep into the heart of Borneo, our cities are facing tree loss at a massive and unprecedented rate.

Urban deforestation as a result of human activity not only decreases the health and quality of life in our cities, but it also worsens the effects of an unpredictable changing climate. Urban trees protect our cities from the effects of harsher storms and more intense heat waves, creating more resilient cities in the process. Not to mention that they actively sequester carbon dioxide and pollution.

In the past, it was quite difficult to measure just how much green urban space we were losing each year. It was also not considered of the utmost importance for many hell-bent on development at any cost. However, with today’s technology, we now know that each year US cities lose over 36 million trees. Globally, that number is likely to be well into the hundreds of millions.

But what’s causing urban deforestation and what can we do about it?

Deforestation can be defined as the process of clearance or clearing trees permanently to make way for something other than forest. In an urban context, this can be due to a number of reasons; housing (re)development, unplanned urbanization, or death due to a range of factors. In the United States alone, approximately 175,000 acres per year or 36 million trees per year are removed from urban areas, according to a study released last year.

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The effects of urban deforestation stem well beyond contributing to climate change. Trees in cities reduce pollution, stabilize temperatures, and increase real estate value, so when you remove them, you create an environment that is not only detrimental to our health and happiness but also has long-lasting economic impacts.

And like most things in life, these impacts aren’t shared equally across society. Urban deforestation creates what has been called the “green-grey divide” between affluent neighbourhoods with sufficient tree coverage and less wealthy areas that go without.

It has been said that the number of trees in urban areas can be used to assess the relative prosperity of the neighbourhood. “Evidence also shows that the amount of vegetation, known as ‘greenness’, in densely populated areas, can also be an indicator of the relative wealth of a neighbourhood. The ‘grey-green divide’, the contrast between built-up areas with dominant grey colour and green spaces, is taken as a proxy indicator of sustainable management of cities and planning of urban growth.”

As a result, the corresponding health and lifestyle benefits of living in an area with more trees are passed on to more affluent parts of society. This divide mirrors inequality throughout our society and can actually be seen from space. So, what can we do about it?

When looking at the numbers, many believe that to combat urban deforestation we need to go ahead and plant more trees. However, it’s more nuanced than that.

Planting trees is one thing, yet we need to address one fundamental issue at hand: the city is to a tree, what the desert is to a human; a harsh and volatile place.

The majority of trees in urban areas don’t live beyond 13 years old and survival past teenage years is even more improbable. Most never reach adulthood. Yet trees begin to contribute back to society — by sequestering significant amounts of carbon, providing a natural shade canopy and reducing pollution — when they become adults.

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So planting trees is not necessarily the answer, or at least, not the nail in the coffin that yesterday’s corporate social responsibility managers tout it to be. So what can our cities actually do about it?

  1. Hold local authorities accountable for deforestation on their watch. One of the greatest contributing factors to urban deforestation is indifference. It’s so important that our city councils or municipalities take a proactive stance in fighting against the falling of trees across our cities. Yet unfortunately, they are still — even whilst self-identifying as Smart Cities — indifferent to the process of urban deforestation. Creating urban forests takes long-term political will and investment from the side of the local authorities. Local authorities must be held accountable for the deforestation that happens on their watch.
  2. Ensure the local population is informed of the benefits of urban forests. If it’s our local authority’s responsibility to show initiative, it’s our job as citizens to make sure they follow through. Whether we’re talking about Los Angeles, Lima or Lagos cities are made up of citizens. Campaigns that show citizens the benefits of green urban spaces should a) be designed to show immediate benefits to public health and happiness and b) not lecture people about a benefit that they cannot touch or see; climate change or resilience.
  3. Take advantage of rapid advances in forestry management technology. With the advent of industry 4.0 technologies like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, cities can use technology to both monitor and manage their urban forests. However, according to McKinsey & Company: “state and other public forest owners tend to be relatively conservative in their management style”. By getting out of their comfort zones, cities can take advantage of upcoming forestry techniques and start creating a 21st-century version of best practice.
  4. Ensure that arborists and tree doctors are equipped to act, not just gather information. So often, the people on the front lines battling urban deforestation are ill-equipped to make a significant impact. Changing this starts with changing the way that cities collect information on their tree inventory. In actual fact, in major urban hubs, a total overview of a tree inventory takes around 3–7 years; half the life of a cityside tree. If you only have a handful of arborists at your disposal, it’s imperative that you free up their time from collecting data to acting.

There are so many things happening on the other side of the planet which we have no control over as everyday citizens, public servants and urban activists. What we can do is make sure that we make our own bed before we begin to lecture others about how they should make theirs. This is one thing that we can and must own if we want to build a resilient urban future.