Putting a Price Tag on Urban Trees

  • Volunteers with the Greening of Detroit plant about 4,000 trees each year in the city. (Photo by Sarah Hulett)

Money might not grow on trees. But researchers at a think tank devoted to saving America’s forests say dollar signs can be attached to all those oaks, maples, and sycamores. They’re hoping their environmental calculus can help convince local governments that it’s in their best interest to protect the trees they still have, and to plant new ones.
The GLRC’s Sarah Hulett reports:

Transcript

Money might not grow on trees. But researchers at a think tank devoted to saving
America’s forests say dollar signs can be attached to all those oaks, maples, and
sycamores. They’re hoping their environmental calculus can help convince local
governments that it’s in their best interest to protect the trees they still have, and to plant
new ones. The GLRC’s Sarah Hulett reports:


If trees could unionize, they’d be able to put together a pretty compelling case for hefty
compensation packages from the cities where they work. That’s the general idea behind a
series of reports put together by the advocacy group American Forests. The organization
looked at the amount of tree-covered land in several US cities and for each city, it put
together a dollars-and-cents case for their protection.


Trees in Detroit got a recent appraisal from the group. Trees shade more than 31 percent
of the city. Besides helping to keep the city cool, the report says Detroit’s trees take out
two million pounds of pollution out the air every year. That’s worth about five
million dollars. And it said if the city’s trees were gone, the city would have to build 400
million dollars worth of storm water drains. That’s because trees act as buffers during
heavy rains, and help control flooding.


Cheryl Kollin is the Director of Urban Forestry at American Forests. She says the bottom
line for politicians and city planners is money. She says they’re not going to save trees
just because they’re nice to look at:


“And I think it’s really building that awareness that trees — as wonderful and beautiful as
they are for their aesthetic qualities — it’s so important to connect the ecological
properties that they have and the economic benefits they provide. Because it really is going to
be that economic argument that makes decision-makers do things differently.”


Like a lot of cities, Detroit relies on a non-profit group to raise money for urban
reforesting. Today, the Greening of Detroit is planting trees around a recreation center in
one of the most polluted areas of the city, where diesel soot from heavy truck traffic
contributes to a high asthma rate.


Rebecca Salminen-Witt is the director of the Greening. She says this is a critical time for
this struggling rust belt city:


“We want to see some development in Detroit. We want to prove to outsiders that good things are
happening here in a visual way. Any development is good development, right? And, you know, that
is simply not true.”


Witt says as the city seeks to rebound, the focus can’t just be on new buildings. She says
it’s important that planners and developers figure trees and green space into Detroit’s
future and she says the American Forests’ economic data and satellite images will help
her make that case:


“Having those statistics, and having that visual representation of this is what it looks, you know, here’s your
heat island effect with trees and without trees.”


That visual picture of tree loss proved especially powerful in the nation’s capital.
American Forests surveyed Washington, D.C.’s trees in 1999. Its report said the city lost
nearly two-thirds of its tree cover between 1985 and 1997.


The Washington Post published the before-and-after satellite photos. They showed huge
swaths of black gobbling up what a dozen years earlier looked green from far above the
earth. It looked like a cancer had wiped out the healthy parts of the city whose slogan is
the “city of trees.”


“That got the attention of a variety of people. One person in particular was Betty Casey.”


That’s Dan Smith of the Casey Tree Endowment Fund. The group was established thanks
to a 50 million dollar contribution from Betty Casey, the widow of developer Eugene B.
Casey:


“And I believe the contribution was if not the largest gift ever for environmental action,
certainly one of the largest.”


That sort of cash gift is a dream for most cities. But the Greening of Detroit’s Rebecca
Salminen-Witt says she does expect to be able to use the information from American
Forests to raise money. And she says it will also help her small organization figure out
which parts of the city are the most in need of trees:


“We have to decide where we’re going to allocate our resources. And having a tool that makes
allocation of resources in an area where there’s a great need easier, or make more sense, is
really important to a non-profit organization.”


Witt says her first pitch will be to the corporations and civic leaders planning a
redevelopment along Detroit’s riverfront. Witt says the plans she’s seen call for some
trees and green space. But armed with satellite pictures and economic data, she hopes
she’ll be able to make the case for a few more trees.


For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.

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Putting a Price Tag on Urban Trees (Short Version)

A non-profit group devoted to saving America’s forests is putting a dollar value on cities’ trees in an effort to convince local planners
to save existing trees and plant new ones. The GLRC’s Sarah Hulett has this report:

Transcript

A non-profit group devoted to saving America’s forests is putting a
dollar value on cities’ trees in an effort to convince local planners
to save existing trees and plant new ones. The GLRC’s Sarah
Hulett reports:


The group American Forests has compiled reports for more than
two dozen US cities. The studies use satellite images to see how
most cities are losing trees over time. They also put a price tag on
the work trees do for a city.


Rebecca Salminen-Witt is the director of a non-profit tree planting
group called the Greening of Detroit. She says people appreciate
the beauty of trees. But she says they need to be shown there’s an
economic need for trees:


“They want us to come, they contact us constantly, they give us
their time and their money. So we know how important it is to
them. But the evidence we really have is anecdotal.”


American Forests says it can show that cities’ trees can be worth
hundreds of millions of dollars for the work they do cleaning
pollution out of the air and helping to control storm water.


For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.

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Eminent Domain Debated

  • The intersection of Devon and Broadway in Chicago, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Alderman Patrick O'Connor is concerned that this corner is a bad use of space - not as walkable as the rest of the neighborhood. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

Cities are always coming up with projects to improve land or even create jobs, and sometimes existing buildings just don’t fit into those plans. Often, owners of such property won’t sell to make way for new development. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on the legality of one tool cities use to force reluctant landowners to sell. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one politician’s use of this legal power:

Transcript

Cities are always coming up with projects to improve land
or even create jobs, and sometimes existing buildings just don’t fit
into those plans. Often, owners of such property won’t sell to make
way for new development. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on the
legality of one tool cities use to force reluctant landowners to sell. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one
politician’s use of this legal power:


This big-city neighborhood is the kind of place where shoppers usually park their cars and walk around. Brick store fronts and restaurants are usually just a few feet from the sidewalk.


But there’s a corner that looks different, though. A lot different.


It’s home to three fast-food buildings. The first business is a popular donut shop. Next door, there’s a fried chicken drive-through. And the last building was once a burger joint, but today it’s home to a car title lender.


To hear the alderman, Patrick O’Connor, tell it, the strip looks like a piece of suburbia landed right in his big-city ward.


“There’s no symmetry, no walkability, it’s all car-related and it’s all basically parking lot. There’s more asphalt than there is building in those places.”


He says this corner on Chicago’s North Side is a bad use of space, and he’s hoping to attract new, more pedestrian-friendly businesses or buildings. But what’s to be done about it if these shops are already there and don’t want to sell? One of O’Connor’s options is to have the city force the owners to sell their properties and then redevelop the land.


The power to forcibly buy property is called eminent domain, and O’Connor says the city’s using it to speed redevelopment throughout Chicago. But O’Connor’s concerned time may run out on the use of this power.


Governments have long-used eminent domain for public use. For example, a city or state might condemn a whole neighborhood, buy out the homeowners, and level the buildings to make way for a road or airport.


But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Kelo versus New London, is considering just how far government can go when using eminent domain to bolster private development.


O’Connor hopes the court sides with local governments.


“In our community there’s not too many open spaces. So what we look to do is to enhance what we have to try to utilize space to the maximum effectiveness. That’s really where the court case hinges, you know, Who’s to say one use is better than another?”


And that question – who decides the best use of a property – is the rallying cry of critics who say cities abuse eminent domain powers.


Sam Staley’s with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank. He says the Supreme Court case is really about fairness.


“Those people that know how to use the system and know the right people in city council really have the ability to compel a neighbor or another property to sell their property whether they want to or not.”


Staley and other property rights advocates are also convinced that cities don’t need eminent domain for economic development. Staley says local economies can improve without government interference.


“The private sector’s just gotten lazy. They no longer want to have to go through the market, so they don’t come up with creative ways of accommodating property rights of the people that own the pieces of land or building that they want to develop.”


Staley says, instead, developers find it easier to have cities use eminent domain.


But most urban planners and some environmentalists say a court decision against this use of eminent domain could threaten redevelopment of both cities and aging suburbs. John Echevarria is with Georgetown University’s Environmental Law and Policy Institute.


“If you don’t have the power of eminent domain, you can’t do effective downtown redevelopment. The inevitable result would be more shopping centers, more development on the outskirts of urban areas, and more sprawl.”


Alderman O’Connor says constituents will always push urban politicians to put scarce land to better use. He says that won’t change if the court strikes down the broadest eminent domain powers; cities will just have to resort to strong-arm tactics instead.


“The alternative is the city then has to become harsher on how they try to enforce laws. They have to try and run sting operations and go after businesses that are breaking the law and then try to close them down and live with empty places until the sellers get tired and they sell.”


The small business community finds this attitude outrageous. They say as long as they improve their businesses and people frequent them, the market should decide whether they stay or go.


On the other hand, urban planners say the market doesn’t always make best use of land. They say local governments need eminent domain powers to control development, and they’re looking to the court to protect those powers.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Greenways to Garner Green for City?

  • Proposals to build greenways in Detroit are raising interest, hopes, and concerns. (Photo by Val Head)

Many cities looking to revitalize their urban centers
have turned to greenways to spur economic development. Greenways are pedestrian or bike paths that typically run between parks, museums, or shopping districts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports on hopes that greenways will breathe new life into one of America’s most blighted urban landscapes:

Transcript

Many cities looking to reviatlize their urban centers have turned to greenways to spur economic development. Greenways are pedestrian or bike paths that typically run between parks, museums, or shopping districts. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports on hopes that greenways will breathe new life into one of America’s most blighted urban landscapes:


This abandoned rail line twenty-five feet below street level might not be many peoples’ first choice for a walk or a bike ride. But Tom Woiwode thinks soon it might be. Woiwode is the director of the GreenWays Initiative for all of Southeast Michigan. When he takes a look down this former Grand Trunk Western Rairoad line in Detroit, he doesn’t see the fast food wrappers, tires, and crashed and rusting shopping carts. He sees trees and grass and benches. And more importantly, he sees people, and places for people to spend their money.


“So maybe a bike repair shop, restaurants, some opportunities for music venues and those sorts of things, so people can ride their bike on down to the riverfront and along the way either stay here for lunch, or along the way stop and rest and enjoy the ambiance, or take their food and go on down to the riverfront where they can enjoy the extraordinary natural resources of the river as well.”


We’re standing near the city’s sprawling open-air produce market. It’s one of the most popular draws for people from inside and outside the city limits. When it’s complete, the greenway will link the market to Detroit’s greatest natural asset: the Detroit River. Greenways are a new redevelopment concept in Detroit. But elsewhere, Woiwode says, they’ve proven a well-tested urban redevelopment tool.


“In fact, back in the late 90’s, the mayors of Pittsburgh and Denver – two municipalities that are roughly similar in size to Detroit – both characterized their greenways programs as the most important economic development programs they had within the city.”


Minneapolis is another city that’s had success with greenways. In fact, backers of the greenway plan in downtown Detroit say they were inspired by a similar project there. Last month, Minneapolis completed the second phase of what will eventually be a five-mile greenway along an abandoned rail line much like the one in Detroit. It’s called the Midtown Greenway. And it’ll eventually link the Chain of Lakes to the Mississippi River thruogh neighborhoods on the city’s south side.


Eric Hart is a Minneapolis Midtown Greenway Coalition board member. He says even the greenway’s most avid supporters joked that people might continue to use it as a dumping ground for abandoned shopping carts like they did when it was just a trench.


“Since then, since it was done in 2000, there’s been a lot of interest in the development community to put high-density residential structures right along the edge of the greenway. And it’s viewed more like a park now.”


Since the first phase was completed in 2000, one affordable housing development and a 72-unit market-rate loft project have been completed. And five more housing developments – mostly condos – are in the planning stages. Hart says people use the greenway for recreation and for commuting by bicycle to their jobs.


Colin Hubbell is a developer in Detroit. He says he’s all for greenways, as long as they’re not competing for dollars with more pressing needs in a city like Detroit: good schools, for example. Or safe neighborhoods. Hubbell says the question needs to be asked: If you build it, will they come?


“I’m not sure. I’m not sure, if, given the perception problem that we have as a city, how many people on bikes are going to go down in an old railroad right away, I’m not sure even if that’s the right thing to do, given the fact that – I mean, we have a street system. And just because there’s a greenway doesn’t mean if somebody’s on Rollerblades or a bicycle that they’re not going to stay on a greenway.”


Hubbell says Detroit already has a lot of streets and not much traffic – leaving plenty of room for bicyclists. Hubbell says it might be cheaper to paint some bike lanes, and put up signs. But he says connecting the city’s cultural and educational institutions, the river, and commercial districts with greenways is a good idea – as long as they’re running through areas where people will use them.


Kelli Kavanaugh says that’s exactly what’s happening with greenway plans in the city. Kavanaugh is with the Greater Corktown Economic Development Corporation in southwest Detroit.


“You can’t just stick a greenway in the middle of a barren, abandoned neighborhood and expect use. But when you put one into a growing neighborhood, a stabilizing neighborhood, it really works as another piece of the quality of life puzzle to kind of support existing residents, but also attract new residents to the area. It’s another amenity.”


Greenway backers say for a city struggling just to maintain its population, Detroit can only benefit from safe, pleasant places to walk and bike. And if other cities are any indication, they say greenways should also help bring another kind of green into Detroit.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sarah Hulett.

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Unique Industrial Land Seen in New Light

  • Marian Byrnes has been called the "environmental conscience of the Calumet." She has been a key leader in getting the city of Chicago, and the state of Illinois, to see the value of Calumet's natural areas. Photo by Mark Brush.

In an area in south Chicago you can see the remnants of a steel industry that has had better days – silent smokestacks looming on the horizon, empty parking lots, and for sale signs in front yards. The Calumet region was once a haven for big industry… and because of that it is also home to a list of seemingly endless environmental problems. Many people thought the problems were too great to overcome, but as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush reports… that attitude is changing:

Transcript

In an area in south Chicago you can see the remnants of a steel industry that has had better days – silent smokestacks looming on the horizon, empty parking lots, and for sale signs in front yards. The Calumet region was once a haven for big industry… and because of that it is also home to a list of seemingly endless environmental problems. Many people thought the problems were too great to overcome, but as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush reports…that attitude is changing:

If you’ve ever driven by Chicago’s south side, you’ve likely seen the smokestacks and factories that dot this old industrial area.

But when you get off the main highway and drive down the back roads of Calumet, you see something you wouldn’t expect – remnants of unique wetlands and prairies. It’s an area where thousands of migrating birds come each spring. Herons, egrets, and cranes carefully pluck their food from these marshes – marshes that are right next to chemical factories and toxic city dumps.

(Bring up sound of sparrows and outdoors)

The sun is setting in this part of the Calumet – some sparrows nearby are settling down for the night – and Marian Byrnes is showing me around the places she’s come to know from living and working here for more than 20 years.

“This land is mostly slag on the banks of Indian Creek, but it’s not considered hazardous.”

“How would the slag get here?”

“Oh, it was waste from Steel Mills – mostly Republic Steel which was north of here.”

(Fade her under + continue outdoor sound)

Marian Byrnes is a retired public school teacher. And at age 76, she volunteers her time as the executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. She repeatedly meets with businesses, community groups, and city and state advisory boards – patiently delivering her message that the Calumet region is worth protecting.

And over the years Marian, and others like her, have steadily worked against a city that didn’t seem to care about the natural areas in Calumet. For many of them, it began more than twenty years ago, when they got a note from the Chicago Transit Authority in their mailbox. The note outlined the Transit Authority’s plan to build a bus barn on their neighborhood’s prairie:

“It was like having our own little forest preserve right behind our houses. You can walk out there, and when you get out – maybe a block or so – you’re not aware that you’re in the city at all. I mean you can’t even see the houses, so it’s just a wonderful place to be in touch with nature.”

They convinced the transit authority to build the bus-barn elsewhere. And in the years that followed they fought off other proposals such as plans to build a toxic waste incinerator, and plans to re-open old city dumps.

But despite those successes, big environmental problems still persist. And the list of contamination is intimidating – heavy metals, PCBs, and leaking landfills. The problems are so overwhelming that when planners in Chicago were thinking about spreading miles and miles of concrete for a new airport, Calumet was thought of as an ideal location.

Kathy Dickhut works in the planning department for the city of Chicago:

“The area does have a lot of environmental problems. Ten years ago the thinking was it was all dirty, environmentally dirty, and that was sort of across the board, …so one way to deal with that is, you know to cover the whole thing up.”

But local environmental and community groups became united in their opposition to the plan. And instead of an airport, the local groups asked the National Park Service to designate the area as an ecological park.

And slowly but surely, the city began to look at the area in a new light:

“I think people didn’t realize just how much opposition there would be to paving over this area. I mean the airport proposal was quite dramatic, and because it was quite dramatic, there was quite dramatic outcry about it – so once that played out – we had to look at it again in a different way. And what we’ve done is really look at the resources that we do have here, which are substantial, and how we can improve those.”

Today, the city appears to have a completely different attitude about the Calumet area. Chicago lawmakers recently passed a land use plan that calls for the best of both worlds. They want to protect and clean up the natural prairies and wetlands – while at the same time – attract new businesses to build on old industrial sites.

City planners hope to balance what may be seen as competing goals (attracting new industries AND cleaning up the environment) by prioritizing where to build and where to preserve. And when they do build – planners are encouraging green building practices. Practices that complement the surrounding natural areas rather than cover them.

Those involved with the project paint a pretty nice picture of what’s to come.

Lynn Westphal is a researcher for the U.S. Forest Service, and works closely with the city of Chicago on the Calumet project: “Imagine an industrial area with the buildings roofs are green. Where instead of turf around – you have native grasses and because of that you have more birds and butterflies… you’ve got bicycle access, people fishing on their lunch breaks…. And it’s not far from becoming a reality. This is all very doable. So it’s not totally hypothetical.”

And in fact, movement toward that new vision is already underway. The Ford Motor Company is building a new industrial park for its suppliers. And many of the green building practices Westphal describes will be used. And the Corps of Engineers is spending more than 6 million dollars to clean up an area known as Indian Ridge Marsh.

But those involved with the transition of this area say that leadership from the community will be the key to its eventual success.

Meanwhile, the Southeast Environmental Task Force will have a new executive director by this summer…

“…and that’ll be someone who’ll learn to do what I’ve been doing for past 20 years, cause I can’t keep on doing it indefinitely.”

“Do you have any advice for them?”

“Have a lot of patience…”

The same patience Marian Byrnes has used when riding a city bus to meeting after meeting, listening to the community, and working with city officials – all in an effort to create what she believes will be a better future for the people in Calumet.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.

Cities Get Federal Money for Brownfields

As cities across the United States attempt to revitalize their downtowns,the Clinton Administration is providing a boost. Vice President Al Gore hasawarded a new round of grants to help clean up and redevelop contaminated,abandoned properties, known as Brownfields. Aboutfour-million-dollars…28-percent of the grant money…is headed to citiesin the Great Lakes region. Ohio will get the most money…Seven Ohio citieswill each receive two hundred-thousand dollars. The Great Lakes RadioConsortium’s Julie Grant Cooper reports on plans to use the funds.