A Lesson in Urban Ecology: The benefits of trees in urbanised areas

by Dr. Lisa Marie King

For the first time in the history of humanity, more of the global population now lives in urbanised areas than in rural areas. In the next 40 years, according to a 2007 United Nation’s report on world urbanisation, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban centres.

Sarawak residents are witnessing this increase in built environments firsthand with the growing number of residential development projects, shopping districts and roads underway throughout the region. As cities such as Miri strive to balance economic growth with environmental quality, sustainability and social well-being, the importance of planting large shade trees and maintaining landscaped areas with trees cannot be underestimated.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, trees act as a stimulus to local and regional economic development, attracting tourists and new businesses to an area. For example, research indicates business districts with trees have quite a positive effect on consumer behaviour. Shoppers prefer to spend their money in commercial areas landscaped with trees compared to similar retail locations without trees.

Additionally, shoppers are willing to pay more for parking and up to 12% more for goods and services in well-landscaped commercial districts. In other words, by paying the minimal costs to plant and maintain healthy shade trees in a shopping precinct, area businesses reap the rewards for several decades – an excellent return on the money invested.

It makes sense for individual property owners to plant trees on their land as well. According to a real estate market research, attractive mature trees add significantly to a property’s value. Properties with large shade trees generally command higher prices when sold or offered as rentals. Apartments and homes in treed areas rent much more quickly and tenants stay longer compared to residential areas without trees.

Trees provide natural elements that complement or highlight the particular features of homes and buildings while generally beautifying the site’s immediate surroundings. Trees also provide a variety of practical functions for property owners, helping to make their home more liveable. They act as privacy screens, focus attention on particular views or block out views people don’t want to see.

Trees muffle urban noises such as traffic sounds, provide habitat for local wildlife, help home owners save on electricity bills, help keep top soil in place and prevent erosion and act as windbreaks. Urban property owners clearly benefit from maintaining treed properties.

Large shade trees not only increase the attractiveness of communities but can also foster considerable civic pride and stewardship towards particularly notable trees or well-established landscaped areas. This is exemplified by cases when city officials announce that a row of trees must be removed to expand a roadway and local residents vigorously protest their removal.

In fact, many cities have a Majestic Tree or Heritage Tree programme designed to identify the significant trees in their city. These programmes protect large stately trees from undue harm while raising community awareness about the importance of trees in urban environments.

Acknowledging the beneficial roles trees play in making cities and towns better places to live, many city councils worldwide have enacted ordinances that help sustain or increase the number of trees within their jurisdiction. For example, ordinances requiring car park businesses to plant and maintain shade trees within their parking areas are not uncommon.

One study of tree shaded car parks in Davis, California, found car park asphalt temperatures were reduced by as much as 2.2 degrees Celsius while the interior temperatures of cars parked in the shade were reduced by more than 8.3 degrees Celsius.

Other ordinances require residential property developers to plant and maintain trees along roadways and open green spaces. Some cities require a property owner to first complete a form explaining why a tree must be removed and obtain an official permit prior to chopping it down. Failure to acquire the permit can result in stiff fines. Ordinances such as these acknowledge the tangible and intangible services trees perform for people and the urban environment.

Trees provide a variety of health benefits. For example, one study found that hospital patients recovering from surgery who had a view of a grove of trees through their windows needed fewer pain relievers, experienced fewer post-surgery complications and left the hospital sooner than similar patients who only had a view of a brick wall.

Another study found that viewing treed areas for five minutes improved an individual’s recovery from stressful situations as determined by monitoring improvements in their blood pressure and muscle tension. Research comparing office workers with and without views of nature found that those who did not have any natural views reported a 23% higher incidence of illness.

Findings such as these are helping many city officials decide on taking their smaller vacant lots and transforming them into landscaped ‘pocket parks.’ These shady pocket parks provide small public recreational areas that can be used and enjoyed by walkers, children and families while helping improve the overall emotional and psychological health of residents of all ages and at the same time ‘greening’ the urban environment.

As more of us become part of an urban ecological system, it is important to remember that often the best solutions to human problems and needs come from nature.  Lessons in urban ecology demonstrate the benefits of trees and landscaped spaces in urbanised areas.

Studies prove that the benefits of planting trees in urban environments are significantly greater than the cost of planting and caring for the trees. Establishing active tree planting and maintenance programmes and creating landscaped areas such as pocket parks is one inexpensive way for Sarawakians and cities such as Miri to reap over time the many benefits of having large trees as part of their urban environment.

Dr. Lisa Marie King is a senior research fellow and senior lecturer at Curtin Sarawak Research Institute (CSRI). Prior to joining CSRI, Dr. King held various academic and administrative positions in Australia and the United States. Dr. King’s diverse interests cover sustainable tourism, capacity building, environmental education, and the branding and marketing of tourist attractions such as national parks and World Heritage Sites as well as development of new tourism-related products and services. She can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 5002 or by e-mail tolisa.m.king@curtin.edu.my.