Crain's Detroit Business
By Rod Kackley
Anyone would love to find a bank that gives back $3.60 for every dollar saved or invested.
Perhaps money does grow on trees, at least in a figurative sense.
A citizens group that came into being when Grand Rapids officials ran out of money to care for the city's parks thinks they can show that trees offer more than scenic value and that the "green" in the green economy is more than the color of foliage.
Lee Mueller, coordinator of the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks Urban Forest Project, made that return-on-investment claim after running numbers through software called i-Tree. The program calculates the monetary value of the improvement in air quality and property value that comes about as a result of trees while also factoring in the reduction in stormwater runoff and electricity and natural gas use, along with the reduction of carbon dioxide.
The goal of the Urban Forest Project is to have Grand Rapids reach the 40 percent tree canopy recommended by the conservation group American Forests. Imagine that you are a bird flying above the city, looking down. The tree leaves and branches shading the ground is the tree canopy.
Grand Rapids' current tree canopy percentage is 36.4 percent, with 1.6 million trees on public and private land.
However, only 8,000 spots remain on public land to plant trees in the city, too few to get to 40 percent, said Steve Faber, executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. So more trees are going to have to be planted and maintained in private backyards.
"We have to show homeowners the value of preserving the canopy even if it drops black walnuts in their backyard," Faber said. "They have to understand they are part of a bigger picture."
To that end, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks has a tree map on its Urban Forest Project website that shows residents how much the trees in their yards are worth because they reduce air pollution and energy use and increase stormwater retention – something made more meaningful after last month's flooding of the Grand River.
One example is a 42-inch-diameter ash tree on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, dubbed the Mayor's Annual Tree in 2012. It produces close to $460 worth of those benefits per year.
"It is important that we think in these annual numbers," Faber said, "and not just think about a tree's value in wood – which is, when we started this, how the city was doing their cost-benefit analysis."
Other studies have shown the payback from investing in so-called green infrastructure aside from environmental issues like CO2 and stormwater runoff.
Kathleen Wolf, a University of Washington professor in the College of Forest Resources, has found that the more trees in a shopping district, the more likely people are to spend more money.
She also found people are more willing to travel farther to a "green" shopping district. However, the merchants told her they often have problems with trees that cover signs and awnings.
And a study in Modesto, Calif., conducted by the U.S. Forest Service found that asphalt streets last longer and require fewer repairs if they are shaded by trees – the larger the better. The study found that an unshaded street needed six treatments of repair sealant over 30 years, while an identical street shaded by small trees needed only five treatments.
That's a savings of 66 cents for every foot of street over 30 years, compared with the unshaded street.
In Grand Rapids, the municipal thought process shifted about three years ago when emerald ash borers – tiny green beetles first discovered in Southeast Michigan in 2002 – started eating their way through ash trees in Grand Rapids.
Faber said Friends of Grand Rapids Parks used the i-Tree software to calculate "a more accurate value on the loss of mature trees" that the city treated as trash. Friends of Grand Rapids Parks made the case that the trees could have been treated and saved rather than being cut down as waste, he said.
"This did change the cost-benefit discussion of treating trees versus removal," he said. "It also sent a signal that a group of citizens was watching what the city was doing."
Faber would like to see city policies that would reward people for keeping trees on their property and see officials pay more attention to people who are pruning or removing trees on city land between sidewalks and streets.
"Right now you could chop this down and the city might or might not know who did it," Faber said, "and the city just lost a huge public asset."
Some education would be nice, too. Dotti Clune, chairwoman of the Grand Rapids Urban Forestry Committee, would like to create a coordinated system to teach people about their responsibilities and abilities.
"They can plant a tree in the parkway, between their sidewalk and the street," she said. "They don't have to wait."
Faber, Mueller and Clune are also looking for ways to protect the tree canopy from property developers.
"What do we need to do to put the right incentives into those mechanisms so that when we do get development in Grand Rapids, we are not losing substantial amounts of canopy or we are expanding planting opportunities when and where we can," Mueller said.
He also sees a need to protect trees in public places, making sure those trees are treated as the only piece of public infrastructure that actually increases in value.
Faber was pleasantly surprised when City Manager Greg Sundstrom unexpectedly added money into the just-completed Grand Rapids budget to purchase 1,000 trees. But most money comes from donors and foundations, Faber said.
"It is kind of the classic Grand Rapids private-public sector partnership," he said. "We have the (Grand Rapids) Community Foundation, the government and the business community all seeing value in this, saying let's move it."
State and federal money is available to help cities improve their tree canopies. Friends of Grand Rapids Parks has raised more than $124,700 in local foundation and state grants.
Faber said 850 of the 2,450 trees planted in 2012 were paid for with federal grant money. But it took local matching money to get it.
In Detroit, the city loses 10,250 trees a year, said Dean Hay, program director for the Greening of Detroit. "Our current canopy cover is 22.5 percent," said Hay, whose group wants to plant 8,000 trees in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park.
Trees are also something that "is important to the knowledge-based niche we are trying to attract," said Amy Mangus, director of plan implementation at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. SEMCOG is putting together a $50 million green infrastructure plan.
Trees also can help stabilize a neighborhood, Hay said.
"We know that neighborhoods that are healthy have a greater canopy cover."