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The Benefits and Limits of Urban Tree Planting for Environmental and Human Health


Many of the world’s major cities have implemented tree planting programs based on assumed environmental and social benefits of urban forests. Recent studies have increasingly tested these assumptions and provide empirical evidence for the contributions of tree planting programs, as well as their feasibility and limits, for solving or mitigating urban environmental and social issues. We propose that current evidence supports local cooling, stormwater absorption, and health benefits of urban trees for local residents. However, the potential for urban trees to appreciably mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution over a wide array of sites and environmental conditions is limited. Consequently, urban trees appear to be more promising for climate and pollution adaptation strategies than mitigation strategies. In large part, this is due to space constraints limiting the extent of urban tree canopies relative to the current magnitude of emissions. The most promising environmental and health impacts of urban trees are those that can be realized with well-stewarded tree planting and localized design interventions at site to municipal scales. Tree planting at these scales has documented benefits on local climate and health, which can be maximized through targeted site design followed by monitoring, adaptive management, and studies of long-term eco-evolutionary dynamics.

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