It is no surprise to hear talk about trees in the Northwest. Our economy and culture historically have been driven by the vast forests that help define the region.
But discussions about the urban tree canopy are of a different variety and warrant the attention they are receiving. Increasing the tree cover in Vancouver provides health and environmental benefits in addition to improving the aesthetics of the city while playing a small role in combating climate change.
A recent assessment by consultant PlanIt Geo found that the tree canopy covers about 19 percent of land within the city limits — an increase from 16 percent in 2011. That is the result of much labor.
In 2020, through a series of planting events, residents added 1,490 trees to the city’s canopy. But more can and should be done. Jeremy Cantor of PlanIt Geo urges city officials to evaluate codes to allow for more tree planting, and he notes that residential areas offer the most potential.
“That’s where most of the planting areas are going to be,” he said. “The more the city works with residents, the more likely you’re going to achieve your goals.”
Those goals include having the tree canopy cover 28 percent of the city by 2030. Whether or not that is achievable, it is a worthwhile target.
In addition to being pleasant to look at and providing shade, trees have numerous environmental benefits. Adding to the canopy helps offset carbon emissions — a leading cause of global warming — and extensive root systems aid with the management of stormwater runoff.
A 2019 study published in the journal Science claimed that globally planting 1 trillion trees — more than 120 for every person on Earth — could capture more than one-third of all the greenhouse gases humans have released since the Industrial Revolution. That conclusion has been disputed, but planting trees should be one leg of a multipronged approach for combating climate change. Restoring forests, cutting carbon emissions, reducing the burning of fossil fuels, and protecting rainforests also are essential to curbing the global threat.
“Trees do take carbon out of the atmosphere, and if you want to permanently store carbon in trees, you have to permanently commit to keeping the trees forever,” University of Chicago geophysical sciences professor David Archer told The Hill last year. “The fossil fuel carbon is so much bigger than all the carbon in the trees. You can’t do carbon neutral by planting trees. … It’s sort of a Band-Aid.”
Band-Aids, however, can be helpful. As Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation, told The Guardian: “We are seeing a surge in attention around urban trees around the world … not just because they are beautiful, but because cities realize that trees are an important part of resiliency, health, wellness, happiness, economic benefit — the list goes on.”
The recent assessment of Vancouver by PlanIt Geo estimates that the city’s current canopy saves about $44 million annually by removing pollutants, reducing stormwater runoff and sequestering carbon.
The report also compares the city to numerous others in Washington and Oregon, finding that Vancouver has the lowest percentage of tree canopy among the cities measured. The city also has among the highest percentages of possible planting areas.
That represents our region’s potential for increasing tree cover and enjoying the health and environmental benefits that come with it.