As other parts of the country turn their backs on nature, it’s the cities of America where species take root and flourish
Thirty-six million trees are lost every year in the United States to stormwater runoff – that is, for every resident living in the majority of US cities.
As global temperatures rise, many cities are turning their backs on the planet’s native vegetation and instead turning to artificial, or genetically modified, landscapes. US cities have a little-known “trees to cities” programme, so we’ve spent some time getting to the bottom of why American cities are failing to realize the true value of their urban forests.
Remember the world’s most beautiful city in the 1920s? Libraries, parks, apartment houses, theaters and a hospital were built on the shores of New York’s Hudson river. We had a Hoboken, a New Jersey city famous for its dramatic trees, but no one would recognize the city today because nearly all the trees along the street are dead or dying. In fact, more than half of the 52 streets in the city are verdant with trees: 42 need to be moved, removed or replaced.
No rainforest. Trash dumps and fern shoots. New York City has turned into a city of concrete, no natural beauty. Photograph: Scott Applewhite/AP
The victims of this central economic and ecological disaster are trees, which sit upon city infrastructure, help with flood control, filter stormwater and protect against fire. Trees also serve as nectar sources for pollinators, providing a strategic habitat and reducing bird pollution. While cities desperately need new parks, the city of Hudson Valley had planned to spend $65m over the course of five years replacing dead and dying trees in its streets and public spaces. Instead, $10m was awarded to trees.
The root cause of the problem is the massive inequalities of wealth and resources in our country. Growing trees in cities is challenging and expensive for the middle class, yet very inexpensive for the wealthy. Using genes from other plants to make artificial plants that are closer to the native flora on which parks and boulevards in the Netherlands, Copenhagen and Philadelphia depend, is also financially responsible.
By converting trees to artificial plants, people are sending the message that our natural resources belong only to us, and that buying them and caretaking them does not belong to anyone else. That has not been the American experience. For more than 200 years, Americans have planted, cared for and maintained thousands of native trees and shrubs from coast to coast. This is now being destroyed, and these services – and their employment – are being taken away from cities and given to trees that may not even grow in America.