Urban Tree Cover Decline Increases Health Risks

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By: Jeremy Buchanan
Trees are one of the most important resources we have available to us. Traditionally, trees have been most valued by those living in rural communities where they are mainly used for building materials or for warmth during the winter. However, recent evidence suggests trees provide further benefits to the health of people living in urban areas. As tree cover loss accelerates within urban communities though, it’s important to understand how your health could be at risk.
A study from Urban Forestry & Urban Greening estimates that between 2009 and 2014, an average of 175,000 acres of tree cover in urban areas across the United States was destroyed per year. This equates to a 1% reduction, approximately 180 million individual trees, in the overall US urban tree cover with the largest losses recorded in Oklahoma, District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Georgia. What does that mean for your health?
One of the most well-known facts about trees is that they produce oxygen by absorbing Carbon dioxide. A less-known fact is that trees also play a major role in reducing air pollution through this same process. Trees in urban areas play a crucial role in absorbing Ozone (O3) and particulate matter (PM2.5), which are two of the most harmful air pollutants threatening human health. The World Health Organization links air pollution to a variety of health issues including reduced lung function, respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, and various cancers.
Trees not only play a role in improving conditions for increased physical health, but also mental well-being. Recent studies have found that green spaces in urban environments allow people an escape and can play a large role in reducing stress and improving comfort levels. The benefits don’t stop there. Lastly, they also help to lower the average temperature in buildings and automobiles during those hot summer months reducing financial, physical, and mental stresses.
So, what is being done?
Globally, there are numerous projects being undertaken, both privately and through government funding, attempting to address the issue. In the United States, some cities are beginning to take notice and have implemented programs to increase the abundance of trees. The Nature Conservancy is currently partnered with local organizations on their “Plant A Billion Trees” campaign in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Both Austin, Texas and King County, Washington have pilot programs in place that allow businesses and individuals to offset their carbon emissions by purchasing credits for tree planting.
Moving forward, as more programs are put into action, we hope to see increased health in urban populations and gain further insight into the health benefits we receive through re-introduction of trees into urban areas. In the meantime, get outside and take notice of the trees around your neighborhood. Are there any? If not, plant one.

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