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Trees = Money

Recently, Pittsburgh decided to consider its street trees like it would any other asset: By measuring their benefits in terms of cold, hard cash.

At a time when some cities are slashing street tree funding in order to balance strained budgets, Pittsburgh is realizing that trees in an urban setting—whether in sidewalks, medians, yards or parks—have benefits beyond giving shade.

And these benefits translate into dollars and cents. Tree Pittsburgh found the city's street trees—strictly those planted in sidewalks and medians—provide $2.4 million worth of environmental and aesthetic value every year. Trees filter air and water, sequester carbon, offer habitat and shade, reduce the urban heat-island effect, boost property values, buffer storms, and even provide a source of energy through waste wood and mulch, among other services. A 2011 analysis of Pittsburgh's total tree cover, which involved sampling more than 200 small plots throughout the city, showed a value of between $10 and $13 million in annual benefits based on the entire urban forest's contributions to aesthetics, energy use and air quality. All of the values were determined using the U.S. Forest Service's i-Tree software and take into account energy savings from shade, impact on the city's air and water and the boost in property values associated with leafy neighbors.

Tree Pittsburgh concluded the city receives $3 in benefits for every $1 it invests in street trees. “The data has been extremely valuable,” says Matthew Erb, Tree Pittsburgh’s director of urban forestry.

The data, Erb adds, is even leading to a slight uptick in urban forestry funding at a time when many cities are seeing quite the opposite.