How much is that tree worth?

Don’t mess with the trees

Here’s the next installment of “What’s it worth?” – the dollarization of different community “items” (see the Zoo here and bicycling here): what are trees worth in Pittsburgh?  The iTree software tools (“Tools for Assessing and Managing Community Forests”) from the USDA Forest Service helps calculate what trees are worth by helping assess an areas’s urban forest composition and health, calculating the “eco-system services” trees are providing (pollution removal, stormwater management, and more), trees’ effects on building energy use, and assessing damage after large storms.

Great!  Having tools to help visualize and articulate the value of trees, bikes, art, sidewalks and other community goods can help demonstrate how these things do impact the community and raise awareness of their importance. In addition, since allocating scarce government resources means putting specific dollar amounts toward various goals in a principled, justifiable, accountable and transparent way such tools can help leaders at least approximate the apples to apples comparisons which can make the task possible.  

But not enough!  I am thoroughly pessimistic when it comes to policy-makers moving beyond the very specific issue on the table.  Or perhaps I am optimistic that elected officials will be distracted by details and staff will stay within their professional comfort zones.  Missing the forest for the trees, you might say.

These tools don’t touch the structural issues in city budgeting.  If a city spends more money on streets because those streets are wider than necessary, serve unproductive land use patterns which are insufficient to support the infrastructure that’s been built, then there will be less money for everything, including trees.  Considering how to maximize public investment in both gray and green infrastructure needs to happen in addition to tree-specific spending as an option at the end of the discussion.

Such tools can perpetuate isolating functions rather than integrating them.  Trees are an excellent example.  Ideally, trees and landscaping should be part of the basic planning for how streets (parks, parking lots, and more) are designed to manage both the traffic (multi-modal, of course), stormwater, energy use, utility management, etc. and not just an optional add-on at the end of the process.  Ideally, iTree would help make trees part of the larger discussion rather than creating a new department of tree management.

So, yes, please use iTree to assess and manage the community forest (I do like this term for its implication of shared benefit and responsibility – those are OUR trees out there), educate the public about the heavy lifting trees are doing, and strategically target spending where it will do the most good.  But keep the whole metaphorical as well as literal community forest in mind when talking about the trees.