Long after the floods recede, and the wires are repaired, residents of the Triangle will continue to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. The focus of our attention: all of those trees! We are living in a heavily treed urban area, to say the least. In fact, Raleigh boasts 60 percent tree cover, compared to the 20 percent average tree cover for cities across the United States.
Some residents will be mourning the loss of their “big old friend” – that tree which held a playhouse adored by local children. Others may be silently cursing their high canopy coverage, while raking vegetative debris toward the street for the next several weeks. And others may even go a step further, and begin to blame all of their neighbors for keeping those “hazards to society” on their properties in the first place.
No matter what end of the “tree hugger/hater” spectrum you find yourself on, it is important that we think through our personal landscaping decisions carefully. A majority of the land area in most cities, especially in sprawling urban areas, is dedicated to residential neighborhoods. This basic fact means that each and every one of us plays a role in how our cities look, feel, and function.
Research across the U.S., and in our own backyard, shows how many benefits we receive from our urban forests (ecologists call these benefits “ecosystem services”). It is undeniable that trees provide us with hidden services that can easily be taken for granted on the daily basis. For instance, at large scales trees can have a positive impact on air and water quality. At a more localized level there are many days in which those trees save us from the sun on boiling summer afternoons. Moreover, don’t underestimate the ways in which trees may impact your personal well-being, as there is increasing evidence that trees can improve our physical and mental health.
With all of these trees around us, it may seem like our urban forests are not in any particular danger; however, a study out of N.C. State a few years ago has already shown that the “city of oaks” may not be boasting about its tree cover in the near future. Urbanization and climate change threaten the extensive tree cover in our cities, not to mention the provisioning of ecosystem services associated with their presence.
Further, we know that many of our minority and low-income communities are not as well-treed and therefore not at the receiving end of all of these urban forest benefits. Right now they might instead be struggling with the costs associated with maintaining a mature urban forest.
Where does this leave us post-Matthew? Well, we know from casual anecdotes that Hurricane Fran led to the death of many healthy trees – a mass assassination event that the insurance companies were keen to support. We also know that in the aftermath of an extreme event, it is easy to be reactionary about the costs we may not have been prepared to incur. I suspect that our urban forests are in more danger than we had predicted in the past.
Let me be honest: If you want to get rid of that red maple that dropped a branch on your car, you probably should. But in the next few months try and also pay attention to what the trees do for you – from the simple things in life like enjoying those beautiful fall colors, to some of the more complex ways in which these urban forests might be providing you with ecosystem services you don’t normally pay attention to.
And when you are done raking up the debris or cursing the fallen heroes in our landscapes, inquire about getting those important wires underground so that you don’t fret about them in the next storm; be proactive about the trees needing maintenance on your property so they are not a hazard during storms; donate time or money toward organizations that work in low-income communities, either helping them with the clean up or the green up; and most simply, plant a tree and think carefully about choosing an appropriate species and a suitable location.
In all of these ways and more we can be a part of creating a healthy urban forest for future generations living in the Triangle.
Melissa McHale is an Associate Professor of Urban Ecology at N.C. State.