Guest Blog: Making the Case for Investing in Trees

By Larry Wiseman|November 6, 2018

Some 40 years ago, I worked for Florence Skelly of Yankelovich, Skelly and White. She was a pioneer in the field of “values” research (and the first women to grace the cover of Business Week). Florence argued that values determine attitudes, and attitude dictates action. While communicators can often create campaigns that shift attitudes – at least temporarily – values tend to remain rock-solid.

Most people express and understand their own values in intensely personal terms. They think as individuals, and they identify more strongly with others who share similar values than with those who might share the same zip code.

That creates a barrier for people who advocate for urban forestry (like me) and companies who invest in communities; we both want to affirm the benefits of those investments. The Vibrant Cities Lab, sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and accessible worldwide, can help companies do just that.

The need to validate investment in trees and forests spans borders – from urban to rural, from nation to nation. In the United States, dozens of companies place tree planting at or near the center of their community service programs, and many focus these efforts in urban areas where they do business. UPS offers just one example: they’ve set a goal of planting 15 million trees by 2020 and committed as much as 20 million hours of employee volunteer time over the same time frame.

Often this time is spent, and these trees planted in urban areas. Likewise, it’s common to see corporate giants embark on projects to make their own campuses greener and create an environmental and social asset for their headquarters community. Zurich North America Insurance planted 4,300 trees and shrubs on its campus in Schaumburg, Illinois. WHC member ExxonMobil deliberately designed trees into its 385-acre Houston Campus to minimize its stormwater impact and energy use. And WeForest, a Belgium service organization, includes 142 companies from around the world among its sponsors – all committed to planting trees as part of their operations. To date, they’ve planted close to 18 million trees.

But this kind of abstract claim of “we planted so many trees” simply doesn’t resonate with those who care more about their personal circumstances than the “green-ness” of their city or community.

To build support for urban forestry and earn recognition for community investments, we need to define the “value” of trees in precisely the terms people care about: personal health, ever-hotter cities, challenges to water and air quality, and taxes for municipal services. Urban trees do make a difference in peoples’ lives:

  • Tree planting reduces childhood asthma up to 29%
  • Planting trees and adding green space to school yards improves academic performance and helps restore attention, even reducing symptoms of ADHD
  • Strategic tree planting helps stem stormwater runoff and ease flooding, saving millions in municipal spending for hard infrastructure
  • Trees even help reduce crime rates

These benefits accrue wherever cities suffer from too much “gray” space and not enough “green.” Urban forestry projects are underway throughout Europe – from Barcelona to Belgravia, Dubai to Detroit – and much of the rest of the world.

The challenge? How to make the case to do even more.

“Often it’s hard for…companies to explain to investors what they are doing…where it’s a relatively new idea, and it may also be that they’re in countries where capital markets are small and inefficient,” says Sofia Faruqi of the World Resources Institute.

That’s why the U.S. Forest Service sponsors the Vibrant Cities Lab, a free website that provides the facts, case studies, figures and tools to document what trees are contributing to individual well-being. Many companies report progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. By using the Vibrant Cities Lab, they can translate simple tree planting statistics into meaningful change on 14 of the 17 SDGs.

The Vibrant Cities Lab is scientifically-based, curated by experts and easily navigated by just about anyone with access to the internet. It includes a resource library with 500+ entries, a tool kit for those who seek to build an effective urban forestry program. Perhaps most importantly for companies considering investments in urban forestry programs, it also includes an assessment tool that helps determine where programs are strong, and where they aren’t.

Laurence Wiseman formed CenterLine Strategy after a 29-year career as founding president and CEO of American Forest Foundation. In 2010 he received the Legacy Award from the Arbor Day Foundation for career achievement in forestry. Since then he’s served as Chair of the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council and helped design and implement major urban forestry projects. During his career Wiseman also created and co-founded the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources; served on the external advisory board for Yale’s Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry; was an Administration-appointed member of the National Recovery Team for the ivory-billed woodpecker; acts as senior adviser to the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition; and counseled the George H.W. Bush White House on creating its signature America the Beautiful initiative aimed at renewing the nation’s urban forests. Alas, to this date, he hasn’t seen or heard of anybody actually spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker.