Trees, Cities & Happiness


A tree in Riverfront Park competes for grandeur with Nashville’s iconic At&T building. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

PlantTreeCity.jpgI just learned of an urban tree-planting initiative on a day when the news shows purposeful indifference about climate change on the part of a powerful country’s elected leader, on the same day when the news also shows that an economist considered a pioneer of environmental economics is receiving a prestigious prize and what he said when he learned of his being awarded the prize:

“Once we start to try to reduce carbon emissions, we’ll be surprised that it wasn’t as hard as we anticipated. The danger with very alarming forecasts is that it will make people feel apathetic and hopeless.

“One problem today is that people think protecting the environment will be so costly and so hard that they want to ignore the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist. Humans are capable of amazing accomplishments if we set our minds to it.”

PlantTreesCity2Let’s decide together to do something, seems to be his message. I learned about this urban tree-planting initiative, news of a president’s abdication of responsibility, and this economist’s optimistic message on the same day I read about a 15-year old climate activist who has decided to do something where she sees her government failing to take action. She has decided at a very young age to do what she can regardless of the daunting odds. So thanks to Margaret Renkl a Nashville-based contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, for bringing this initiative to my attention, as a reminder to do something:

More Trees, Happier People

When cities grow, green space dies. Replanting it has been shown to lift the human spirit.


A tale of two trees in Nashville. A mature tree in England Park, left, and a newly planted tree at Wright Middle School.

NASHVILLE — The scene in a tiny pocket park outside Plaza Mariachi here on Nolensville Pike last Wednesday was like a tableau from a Norman Rockwell painting, 21st-century style. Surrounded by signs advertising the Hispanic Family Foundation, Dubai Jewelry, the Dominican Barber Shop and restaurants offering Peruvian, Chinese, Mediterranean and Indian food — as well as a Game Stop franchise and H&R Block — was a small sign that read, “Today: Free trees.”


Photographs by William DeShazer for The New York Times

The arrow on the sign pointed to a pop-up canopy where the Nashville Tree Foundation was hosting its fourth tree giveaway of October. A family standing under the canopy was posing for a photo with the sapling they had just adopted. Carolyn Sorenson, executive director of the foundation, was taking the picture: “Say ‘trees’!” she said.

The tree giveaway at Plaza Mariachi happened to fall on the very day that Nashville’s mayor, David Briley, announced a campaign to restore and enlarge the city’s tree canopy. The effort, called “Root Nashville,” will be overseen by the city and the Cumberland River Compact, an environmental nonprofit, and funded through a combination of public, corporate, foundation and private dollars. Together with several municipal departments and other nonprofit organizations, the initiative aims to plant 500,000 trees in Davidson County by 2050.

Many of these newly planted saplings will replace very large, very old trees that have been lost to Nashville’s meteoric growth — a population increase of more than 45 percent since 2000. As the city has grown, the city’s trees have fallen: deliberately felled by developers to make room for new construction or unintentionally killed as a side effect of nearby building. Just since 2008, the tree canopy in the urban core has dropped from 28 percent to 24 percent, a loss of roughly 9,000 trees a year.

The Nashville Tree Foundation’s giveaway program — which continues through Friday — is just one of the nonprofit organization’s outreach efforts, each focused on planting trees in the poorer parts of town, which tend to have the least green space. “We’re all working toward the same goal of 500,000 trees, and we want an equitable distribution of free trees in the county,” said Ms. Sorenson. “We usually plant in areas where there’s an intersection of low canopy and low income. We’re trying to make a large impact over a short period of time.”

I learned about the tree giveaway the same way I learn about most other initiatives sponsored by nonprofits with a limited advertising budget: through social media. That’s the same way — and on the same day — I heard Erica Ciccarone’s story of the developer who cut down three ancient black walnut trees on the property line they share. What’s going up next to Ms. Ciccarone’s small house in the Wedgewood-Houston part of Nashville is a four-story duplex, and she wasn’t surprised when the builder took out the old tree closest to the monstrous new structure under construction. But there was no reason at all to take down the trees in the back of the lot.

As it happens, Ms. Ciccarone lives in an area where the tree canopy is well below its target density, but for her the loss of the black walnuts was personal. “They weren’t majestic,” she wrote in an email. “Their leaves were small and scraggly. But they provided shade for us and the chickens, housed songbirds, and they blocked the sight line from the alley into our yard and back porch.”

Her reaction is typical: When trees die, people invariably mourn. And when trees are planted, people become demonstrably happier. Rhitu Chatterjee of National Public Radio recently reported on a randomized study designed to discover the effect of urban green space on mental health. The study found that cleaning up vacant lots and planting grass and trees was associated with a significant improvement in the mental health of nearby residents: According to the report, “feelings of depression and worthlessness were significantly decreased.”…

Read the whole essay here.

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