A Resource as Vital as a Tree

Great care should be exercised dealing with Buffalo's storm-damaged urban forest

Release Date: October 27, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Lynda Schneekloth, professor of architecture in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, is calling on city officials and residents alike to be very careful in the treatment of trees damaged in the recent October snowstorm.

"There is a strong urge to clean up the mess quickly," she says, "but decisions as to which trees to save, which to cut down and how to care for those that are injured must, for the sake of our environment and our health, be made with great care. The chain saw can be overused.

"Buffalo already has a very small urban forest compared to other cities," she says, "and it may not be necessary to remove a tree, even if it has lost major branches or suffered significant damage. Careful and informed pruning can save many of them.

"The Buffalo-Lackawanna forest canopy covers only 3,726 acres -- 12 percent of the urban area, compared to 33 percent in the average American city," Schneekloth says, "and the recent storm destroyed about 20 percent of that canopy."

"My fear is that because we don't have the expertise to prune and take care of our trees that they will just be taken down, when what we need to do is save what we can save and establish new plantings wherever possible," she says.

In addition to their great beauty, particularly appreciated in Buffalo, which lost virtually all of its ubiquitous mature elms to the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the late 1950s, Schneekloth says the urban forest has great economic and environmental value.

"Urban forests provide incredible resources to cities, but these usually are not accounted for unless they are absent," she points out. "For one thing, the green space they provide increases the value of adjacent land and attracts businesses. Also, they keep our environment clean."

She refers to a 2003 recent study of Buffalo's urban forest conducted by the organization American Forests, which found that a city trees prevents $62,900 worth of air pollution over a 50-year lifespan, and that it would cost Buffalo $826,000 a year to remove that much pollution."

"Our trees provide enormous storage area for water, as well," she says. "They reduce the speed with which storm water runs from the ground into the streets and into the sewers, providing 35.5 million a year in storm-water management.

"Then there is water pollution control," she says.

"The average tree stores 17.7 cubic feet of water," says Schneekloth, "and with Buffalo's combined sewer system, about once a week the city has a raw sewage overflow into our waterways. If we added 17.7 cubic feet of water per tree to that overflow, our waterways would be much more polluted than they already are."

U.S. Forest Service, according to Schneekloth, estimates that although over a 50-year lifespan, one tree contributes more than $150,000 in clean air and water benefits, the average life of a street tree in urban areas is only 10 years because we treat them so badly.

"In addition, trees provide privacy, emphasize views, or screen out objectionable views, reduce glare and reflection, direct pedestrian traffic, provide background to and soften, complement, or enhance architecture, and provide park space for exercise," she says, "something badly needed in a city that has the highest death rate from heart disease in the state and one of the highest obesity rates (20-24 percent) in the country."

Schneekloth points out that trees alter the environment in other ways -- by moderating climate, harboring wildlife and reducing energy costs, and their social effects are notable and becoming better known through research.

She says, "In his book, 'Last Child in the Woods,' child advocacy expert Richard Louv describes the consequences of children's disconnection from the natural world and cites research that shows that the thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can offer a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorder and other maladies.'"

A series of studies conducted by a University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) team found that people "need" to see leaves from their windows, to sit in green spaces and to play in the shade. Trees, they point out, draw people out from behind walls of brick and glass, and, in coming together, neighbors forge relationships, nurture children and build a sense of community.

The studies found strong evidence that "trees have the potential to reduce social service budgets, decrease police calls for domestic violence, strengthen urban communities and decrease the incidence of child abuse."

"In fact," Schneekloth says, "studies suggest that if hospital patients can see trees from their rooms, they get better faster.

"The evidence is in," she says. "Buffalo needs its trees. So we need to be very, very careful about which trees have to be chopped down -- consider their enormous contribution to the life of the city."

Schneekloth's scholarly research is focused on the idea of placemaking, that is, how people transform the world, including natural processes and built form.

She is the author of several books, many reports on projects such as the master plan for Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica's cloud forest, Greenway Planning for the Buffalo River, and national award-winning articles in scholarly and professional journals

Information on how to prune and care for storm-damaged trees can be found on the Web site of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Lands and Forests at http://www.dec.state.ny.us/website/dlf/privland/urban/stormcare.html.

The Cornell University Cooperative Extension Program offers advice and lists of arborists who can help homeowners make good decisions about how to handle their damaged trees. Go to www.emergencypreparedness.cce.cornell.edu.

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