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The benefits that trees can bring to our towns and cities: a response to the Budget

Environmental campaigners have condemned the Chancellor's budget plan to spend £60m on tree planting in contract to a staggering £30bn being pledged for roads. Here Alan Simson, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Forestry at Leeds Beckett University and member of the International Committee European Forum on Urban Forestry, highlights the importance of green space and tree planting to our wellbeing and wider society.

Sadly, in spite of their rhetoric, I don’t think the Government has really grasped the importance of trees and green space to the quality of life of people in the UK. Many other countries are well ahead of us on this. We’re more than 64% more likely to die from cancers et al associated with air pollution in the UK than they are in Sweden.

There is a growing canon of research that proves that the inclusion of trees in and around our urban areas has a broad spectrum of benefits for all of us who live, work or visit there. Trees can greatly improve our health and well-being for example, can improve children’s learning, increase property values, provide focal points to improve social cohesion, improve air quality, offset carbon emissions, promote biodiversity, limit the risk of flooding, cool our towns and cities, promote inward investment and job creation and even make us drive more safely. Street trees in particular play an integral role in supporting healthy urban communities, and they have a significant social impact by improving human health, reducing crime, increasing community interaction and boosting property values. Significant benefits indeed, and thus trees and the urban forest are now globally considered as being a metaphysic for resilient towns and cities. In July 2018, the Office for National Statistics acknowledged that in 2015, urban trees, plants and grass removed large amounts of air pollution from our towns and cities, saving the lives of 1900 people, reduced lung and heart-relates hospital admissions by 7,100 and saved the NHS around £1 billion.

The UK is the least treed country in Europe, and the canopy cover in our towns and cities is reducing. We are all aware of the problems being faced by the people of Sheffield regarding the removal of their trees from their streets, but they are not alone. Canopy cover in most of our towns is reducing. Leeds for example has a canopy cover of some 6.5% - the European average is over 20%. Where would you prefer to live or invest? The recent Budget has promised to fund tree planting in the UK to the tune of £62 million. On the face of it, this sounds like a positive step forward, until you discover that £30 billion is scheduled to be spend on roads. Whilst accepting the cars are not just a means of travel nowadays but a way of life, this does seem to be seriously imbalanced.

Research into the planning, design, establishment and management of the urban forest over recent years has proved that it has even more significant role to play in our towns and cities. We are all aware of the health dangers of smoking cigarettes, and there is legislation in many EU countries that prohibits such activity in public places. What is less appreciated however is that it has been estimated that living adjacent to a busy urban road is the equivalent of being a passive smoker. In our urban environments, reductions in air quality resulting from emissions of particulate matter, primarily PM10’s and PM 2.5’s from road traffic, are a serious health issue globally. In the UK, even short-term exposure to high levels of such pollutants can cause a range of adverse effects, including the exacerbation of asthma, effects on lung function, increases in hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and increases in mortality. Public Health England has estimated that over 60,000 people in the UK annually die prematurely as a result of air pollution from road vehicles, especially diesel powered vehicles. In Leeds for example, some 350 people per annum who live or work in the City Centre will die prematurely from diseases such as cancer (UK Government figures).

Vegetation is the most effective way of intercepting particulate aerial pollution and, because of their large canopy surface area of leaves, stem and branches, and the air turbulence created by their structure, trees are the most effect form of vegetation for doing this. Thus designing the urban forest is getting more sophisticated, as the canopy area, structure and choice of tree species are critical in intercepting the maximum amount of particulate pollution.

A need is emerging therefore for a responsive concept for planning, designing, constructing and managing sustainable, resilient urban areas to emerge that is trans-disciplinary, cost effective, and easy to both understand and communicate to all levels of the community. If the conventional approaches to regulating urbanism are no longer reliable, perhaps an opportunity exists for an alternative approach to develop? Might it be an opportune moment therefore for urban forestry to step forward and start getting involved in proposing cogently argued strategic, regional plans to seduce and convince the policy-makers, just as urban planners had to do for city developments in the late 20th century? Urban forestry has the credentials to deal with these unstable conditions because it continually adapts and transforms itself and can accommodate a myriad of forces and initiatives. Urban forestry is getting more sophisticated and has moved beyond being seen as a ‘green cosmetic’ that all too often was used to legitimate poor planning, to becoming an integral part of a new, more resilient European urbanism. For example, London has carried out a survey to estimate the benefits that their trees bring to the city – a staggering £132.7 million per annum.

In our mission to shape a better world, we must shape better cities. Helping to create places where people can aim high in hope and work is the potential role that urban forestry can take on in the emerging, world-wide new urbanism, based very much on the premise that the true wealth of our towns and cities can only really be measured in terms of the well-being and the culture of our people, and the sustainability and resilience of our environment. Some would say that these promises are unrealistic, maverick views that cannot be realised in the contemporary urban debate. It could be equally argued however that today’s maverick views are tomorrow’s orthodoxy, and perhaps the challenge for all of us who understand that trees matter is to find ways of reaching that promise. In the light of the above and the recent Budget, it does seem that our Government still has some way to go in understanding the benefits that trees can bring to our lives, and providing the vision, organisation and leadership required to deliver viable urban futures for the people of the UK.

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Professor Alan Simson

Alan Simson is a Chartered Landscape Architect and Urban Forester. Currently, he is a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Forestry.

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