Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Much More Important Than That

Last spring, after reading one of my posts referencing urban trees as a form of green infrastructure, a friend of mine in high office tried gently to break the news to me.

He emailed, “Local officials or residents generally don’t see trees as what they typically think of as ‘infrastructure.’”  My friend reassured me that “we mostly think of trees as wonderful and beautiful and necessary, but not as infrastructure.”

He’s right, unfortunately.

This reminded me of a hilarious response the editor of the now defunct Business 2.0 gave to me when I tried, in my former role, to explain that Durham and Raleigh are distinct communities and metro areas.

He quipped the oxymoron (contradictory terms appearing in conjunction) that until “Durham is better known,” his magazine would “continue to refer to it as Raleigh.”

No wonder the magazine went out of business in 2007.

Actually, opinion polls have long shown that Durham has nearly the same awareness level as Raleigh even though the latter has the advantage of being memorized as a state capital by nearly all school children.

But the role of the community marketing organization I led at the time was to raise that awareness, especially among prospective visitors for which Durham would be a good fit, while aiding those for whom it wouldn't, to seek alternatives.

Yes, community marketing is not missionary work, but I digress.

Likewise, the general public’s recognition of “green infrastructure” will take time and rely on awareness generated by local governments.

To be fair, it wasn’t until about two decades ago that the term “green infrastructure” began to be used in government circles, although it had been taught as part of planning and administration long before that.

EPA is working hard to further this understanding and I would think that Durham officials will soon catch on.  But more importantly, will they realize their responsibility to educate residents in this regard?

Equally pertinent, will they accept stewardship for not only government-owned trees here but the broader tree canopy?  Will they finally execute a study to quantify that value?

But as Washington Post science journalist, Chris Mooney, suggests, the quantification of ecosystem services (“blending concepts from ecology and economics”) may be missing the even greater benefit of trees and other forms of green infrastructure to public health.

Ecosystem services are things such as provisioning food, regulating services such as water purification, or cultural services such as sense of place or aesthetics.

National Parks, for instance, generate $10 into the economy for every $1 invested by taxpayers, including tourism, but they also pull or sequester $580 million of carbon out of the air annually.

As Mooney did in this week’s column about a proposal by Harvard’s Dr. E.O. Wilson to set aside for our own sake half of the earth’s land area and 70% of the ocean in the form of nature reserves, he often covers research that deepens the connection between health and nature.

I’ve always been healthy but I am arguably healthier now than I’ve been in more than 40 years.  Wherever I’ve lived in Durham over the last 26 of those years, I’ve been surrounded by forests, nowhere more than where I live now.

On the eve after my birthday this past July, new research was published that concluded, “Having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000…,” or “being 7 years younger.”

The lots where I split my time, one in Durham and one on a nearby lake each have more than 100 trees alone which obviously contribute to my feeling younger.

Lets see now, research has recently shown that tree cover, not just government-owned trees but the entire tree canopy of a community, has an impact on public health, public works, taxable property values, crime reduction, social services, economic and neighborhood vitality, mental health, air and water quality etc.

Maybe they aren’t a form of infrastructure which is defined as the basics needed for the operation of society.

They are much more important than that.

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