Monday, June 18, 2012

Trees, Box Fans, Urban Prosperity, and Other Ruminations from Indiana

By Ellen Cutter, Director of Research.

My husband is from Minnesota. He’s the guy who rarely wears a coat in the winter time while the rest of us pile on layer after layer. Having bought a 100-year-old house in Indiana, 600 miles southwest of his old stomping grounds, he spends hot summer days debating whether or not to turn on the AC. And, because he’s Midwestern (meaning “practical” to the point of being impractical sometimes), he usually talks himself out of using the AC in favor of rigging a Rube Goldberg-esque system of fans, extension cords, screens, and windows propped open with books all the while mumbling about the all-important concepts of shade and air-flow.

When we moved in last July during the hottest weekend on record, EVER, in the state of Indiana, we made two immediate investments: window treatments and trees. Located in a revitalizing area in Fort Wayne, our home had sat vacant for about seven years. It did not have a single set of blinds up and had only one small tree on its lot. With each window in our house painfully exposed, on 90 degree + days it felt like we were bugs slowly heated to death under a kid’s magnifying glass. Looking around the neighborhood, we realized that most of our neighbors had at least a dozen trees on their similarly sized lots. Our lot was bald and our home remained one of the last vacant homes in our neighborhood. Coincidence?

Let’s turn to the Per Square Mile blog for some answers. Last month, blogger Tim De Chant discussed the correlation between income and tree cover in cities. De Chant references a 2008 study from the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, noting the researchers found that “for every 1 percent increase in per capita income, demand for forest cover increased by 1.76 percent. But when income dropped by the same amount, demand decreased by 1.26 percent.” He continues, “That’s a pretty tight correlation. The researchers reason that wealthier cities can afford more trees, both on private and public property. The well-to-do can afford larger lots, which in turn can support more trees. On the public side, cities with larger tax bases can afford to plant and maintain more trees.” Makes sense.

In a follow up blog, De Chant visually shows us this correlation between income and tree cover by contrasting neighborhood in various global cities. The results are fascinating. De Chant uses a beautifully simple technique, side-by-side Google Earth satellite images, to compare tree cover in high and low income neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, Oakland, Houston, Chicago, Beijing, and Boston. In my hometown, the Hyde Park neighborhood (home to University of Chicago and the Obamas) is a lush bled-together grid of trees while the Woodlawn neighborhood, an area known for crime and disinvestment located only a few blocks south, is sporadically measled with tree tops. It can be easy to roll our eyes at the feel-goodery of those who take up trees as their charge when there are *real* urban problems. But the fact of the matter remains that trees are correlated with neighborhood income, property values, and crime. Trees are overwhelmingly a worthwhile investment for homeowners and cities.

For what it’s worth, over the last year we’ve planted an oak, birch, ornamental pear, red oak, and blue spruce. That is five new trees on only 0.15 acres of land. That signals investment in our community, which is a good thing for the neighborhood. And, our house already feels a bit cooler this summer, which is a good thing for this woman and her live-in Minnesotan.