Urban Forestry Initiatives Within Major U.S. Cities: Efforts Taking Place in Your Own Backyard to Revive Urban Greenery
By Victoria Lodico
A quick Google search of the top global sustainability trends of 2022 reveals that governments, businesses, and communities are prioritizing surpassing the goal of merely reaching carbon neutral or net-zero emissions in favor of climate-positive accountability. In the global transition to a low-carbon future, bringing plant life back to urban environments is a green-forward pattern that can increasingly be seen within major populous cities across America such as Denver, Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Dallas, and Austin, Texas, and to an even greater degree in the California cities of Sacramento and San Francisco.
Colorful Colorado – Denver
In Denver, as much as $18 million of the city’s annual tourism revenue can be attributed to its parks system. Major urban greenery attractions include the Denver Botanic Gardens, home to more than 32,000 species of plants, and the City Park Arboretum, Denver’s largest urban park, home to more than 3,000 trees. And the fun doesn’t end there; in 2024, the Nature Play Project, a 4-acre outdoor play and education area intended to restore native plants and a historic waterway, will be added to City Park. The abundance of green space within the heart of the city is thanks to the effort of developers diversifying tree species during plantings, setting city-wide planting and canopy goals, and keeping records of the age distribution of the canopy.
Nature Play project rendering
The City of Industry – Charlotte
Similarly, Charlotte estimates that its tree-lined streets account for more than $900,000 in annual energy savings. Like Denver, Charlotte has several attractions, including the U.S. National Whitewater Center featuring 1,300 acres to run, paddle, ride, and climb. And a one-and-a-half acre park called The Green. On top of this, Charlotte boasts a robust, comprehensive management plan, tree ordinances designed to protect both public and private trees, and TreesCharlotte, a public-private nonprofit collaboration to grow, diversify and steward the city’s iconic urban forest.
National Whitewater Center
The City of Lakes – Minneapolis
Minneapolis residents have access to a park every six blocks, including some designed explicitly with off-road cycling, hiking, canoeing, and swimming in mind. The city has a tree canopy of 31%, only 6.5% shy of its potential of 37.5%, and is one of the first cities to use the U.S. Forest Service’s iTree assessment tool to determine the benefits of its urban forest. The innovation of new tools like the U.S. Forest Service’s iTree assessment, Tree Equity Score Database, iTree analysis, and the Interactive Habitat Map enable urban forestry team members to know where trees can be planted and what kind of species would be most desirable for the benefit of the urban forest.
Urban tree canopy ini Minneapolis
The Rose City – Portland
Portland offers bikers, runners, yoga enthusiasts, and wildlife lovers a prosperous urban tree canopy. The city’s main attractions include Forest Park, home to over 100 species of mammals and more than 100 species of birds across 5,000 acres with 70 miles of hiking trails. An arboretum houses nearly 1,000 species of trees and shrubs. The city is using green infrastructure as a cost-effective alternative to gray infrastructure. Some of the city’s derelict parking lots and a freeway have been transformed into urban paradises. Moreover, Portland prioritize tree protection through public and private ordinances. It is estimated that the city’s street trees alone have added more than $13 million in property resale value. Living walls are another great example of Portland’s innovative, successful urban forestry efforts.
The Green Metroplex – Dallas
Keeping with the theme that everything’s bigger in Texas, the Rastegar Property Company announced plans in 2020 to develop the tallest living wall in North America, as part of a 26-story tower in Dallas. The building aims to improve local air quality, with over 40,000 plants estimated to capture over 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide and produce 1,200 pounds of oxygen annually. This mixed retail and residential development would positively impact the community, increase walkability, and bring more green space to the corridor. This living wall initiative offers an example of a major populous city successfully championing its established sustainability goals while simultaneously setting a model for other forward-thinking towns to follow.
Bat City – Austin
Not too far away, another Texas city, Austin, has also recently received praise for its diverse tree canopy and urban forest management plan. There are 300 days of sunshine a year here, a 10-mile off-road trail in the city’s heart, a natural three-acre spring-fed swimming hole, and bats that emerge from under a bridge in the city’s center at sundown each day. With Austin having a tree canopy that covers more than 30% of the city and nearly 33.8 million trees, there is no trouble finding a place to grab some fresh air and be immersed in nature despite the booming metropolitan surrounding. That said, it is a challenge to maintain this high tree canopy percentage amid ongoing development, including the push to increase infill housing like townhouses and highrise apartments within the urban core to reactive city centers and increase density to facilitate varying levels of housing affordability.
Aerial view of Barton Springs
The City of Trees – Sacramento
In what has become known as The City of Trees, Sacramento’s many volunteers contribute the equivalent of $100,000 worth of labor to assist the city’s trees in a given year. The strong volunteer base facilitates a partnership to plant 13,000 trees on private property that will provide shade to homes and reduce energy demand. On top of this, some of the main attractions include a 33-mile bike trail and the picturesque Capitol Park surrounding California’s State Capitol, which features 450 varieties of trees and flowering shrubs.
The Golden City – San Francisco
When people think of San Francisco, apart from cable cars and hippies, hilly streets lined with abundant plush, green trees also come to mind. San Francisco has received praise in recent years for their Urban Forest Plan, facilitating a greener and healthier city where trees grow and thrive on its streets, allowing 100% of residents to access a park within a half of mile walk. Four key recommendations are included within the plan. First, the plan recommends selecting tree species and planting locations to maximize air and water pollution removal, carbon sequestration, habitat creation, traffic calming, walkability, public health, stormwater capture, and neighborhood beautification. The second recommendation is for the city to grow the street tree population by half by 2025, equating to 50,000 new trees. In turn, these new trees will help slow the decline of the urban forest, help create a more equitable distribution of tree canopy, and reduce greening inequities in different areas of the city. The third recommendation establishes and funds a city-wide street maintenance program, as publicly maintained trees typically fare better. This led to an overwhelming majority of voters passing Proposition E in 2016, ultimately shifting the maintenance responsibility of street trees and root-damaged sidewalks away from property owners and centralizing responsibility in the San Francisco Public Works through a fully funded municipal street tree program. Lastly, the plan recommends managing San Francisco’s street trees throughout their life cycle by creating an interdependent urban forestry operation to provide second-life opportunities for locally grown urban wood. These efforts have earned San Francisco a top place among major U.S cities prioritizing urban forestry.
Aerial view of San Francisco
Green Capital of the World – Copenhagen
The green capital, Copenhagen, is doing a thing or two to encourage urban forestry. Between cycling to the local pastry shops and stuffing my face with delicious delicacies, I observed that these sustainable efforts subsequently aimed to improve equal access to nature for residents. To demonstrate the impressive strides in increasing urban greenery, just consider that 96% of Copenhageners live within a 15-minute walk of a green or blue area. Even more efforts are underway to improve access to recreational areas.
Rosenborg Castle King Gardens
More Green Space Needed in Most American Cities
Despite the great examples of cities we’ve reviewed that are diligently doing their part, in 12 out of the 45 American cities tested for walkability, less than 50% of residents are within a half of a mile of a park, with only a mere 35% of residents in Jacksonville, Fla., and 42% of San Antonio’s residents living within 15 minutes from a park.
In the United States, practitioners suggest that having greenspace within a five to fifteen-minute walk is vital for physical health. Having said this, although significant strides in the global transition to a low-carbon future have been made in recent years, there is always more work that somebody can do.
Victoria Lodico is a student at the University of Texas at Austin earning a dual degree in International Relations & Global Studies and Political Communications. Victoria is the Spring 2023 Environmental Policy Research, Organizing, and Advocacy intern for the Texas office of Public Citizen in Austin.