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4 things corporations should know about urban forestry projects

Planting trees in cities has become a hot topic for sustainable investment among businesses, but these projects are very different than typical efforts.

Trees around a grave

Urban forestry such as at this cemetery protected in part by a City Forest Credits project are becoming important parts of corporate sustainability and equality strategies. Courtesy of City Forest Credits. 

It’s hard to make planting trees political, one reason this climate mitigation strategy has received rare bipartisan support for the past two decades. Corporations have used that to their advantage to become an important part of the tree planting business. Funding tree planting in rural areas across the globe was an easy way for businesses to invest in green initiatives and to win points with the general public. 

But urban forestry has a different history. The canopy of trees in cities often corresponds to maps of redlining, income and race. That’s one reason investing in urban forestry isn’t as simple; nor does it have the same sustainability impacts. Regardless of those challenges, more businesses are deciding to put their money behind forestry projects in cities.

In 2013, American Forests called Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and New York; Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; Seattle and Washington, D.C., the 10 best cities for urban forestry. In a 2016 study, Seattle determined 28 percent of the city is covered in trees, close to its 2037 goal of 30 percent. D.C. hopes to cover 40 percent of its district with canopy by 2032. 

That has attracted the attention of companies. Amazon, for example, recently announced a $4.37 million commitment to The Nature Conservancy to support an initiative in Berlin. And for the past few years, Bank of America has partnered with American Forests on the Community ReLeaf Program, planting nearly 3,000 trees in 19 cities. One impressive goal for this partnership is to bring 200,000 trees to Detroit. As Microsoft builds data centers in Iowa, it is also investing in urban forestry projects to bring an environmental and health benefit to the neighborhood as well. A project that planted 734 trees created total savings of $56,693 per year through energy savings, air quality and rain interception for the city. 

Here are four things sustainability teams should know when considering the urban tree business.

1. You can get carbon credits for urban forestry  

Because urban forestry generally has a relatively low carbon removal impact, fewer organizations are focused on creating carbon credits for these projects. According to Mark McPherson, founder of City Forest Credits thinks of itself as a LEED system for urban forestry. It connects businesses with urban forestry projects and then issues a certified carbon credit. 

But because urban forestry has so many ancillary benefits not included in the carbon credit, McPherson’s company also issues a bundled credit that includes the health benefits of urban trees and it is working on an impact scorecard.

City Forest Credits worked with scientists to quantify the exact health benefits of each tree, creating a measurement scheme similar to carbon removal metrics.

"We can assess a project's equity and health impacts, and then we’ve mapped those impacts to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals," he said. 

But as is the case with renewable energy credits, there are worries that carbon credits could give businesses the same license-to-pollute mentality. McPherson sees it differently. 

"Trees are like going on the offense," he said. "They’re not just playing defense against climate, they are actually pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. That’s real."

2. Urban forestry could create more impact with less volume

For many years, urban forestry projects were unattractive to corporations because you couldn’t plant enough trees in an urban environment to achieve a meaningful carbon dioxide removal impact. Carbon removal was seen as the only benefit of trees and the only way corporations could quantify a project’s impact. 

But urban forests have myriad other benefits that are becoming more understood and easier to measure: They have been demonstrated to help control stormwater, lower energy costs, improve air quality and provide both physical and mental health benefits. And if placed intentionally in the most needed areas, trees can have a profound effect in addressing environmental justice concerns.

Youth planting trees

Partnerships with NGOs and businesses can bring trees to urban heat islands and help engage youth in the area.// Courtesy of City Forest Credits

In Richmond, Virginia, for example, a 65-acre African-American forested cemetery was struggling economically, and the owner considered logging the trees to keep it as a pillar in the community. Instead, the organization opted for an urban forestry project with City Forest Credits that conserved the trees and created earnings for the cemetery by generating 5,376 carbon credits to sell.

As a result, the trees continued to be an environmental asset to the community, important African-American history was conserved and the credits could benefit other corporations on their environmental goals. A threefold impact.

"There’s a strong desire to have projects that benefit people," said McPherson. "And the urban forest is obviously where people live and breathe and recreate."

3. Urban forests are more expensive  

Sustainability experts might be familiar with the dollar-per-tree model, but that isn’t true of urban forestry. The different cost structures for a city tree can come as a surprise to corporations. Urban land is expensive. The installation of mature trees is expensive. Maintaining trees is expensive. 

Unlike wild forests where a planter can spread out a hundred seedlings easily and walk away, urban forestry requires more labor, planning and permits. 

"We plant much more mature trees [in cities]," said Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests. "So they have a greater likelihood of surviving and so we can get the benefits more quickly, but that also makes them more expensive."

Corporations may opt to create a diverse portfolio of forestry projects, doing large landscape projects in rural areas for sequestering carbon and then supporting a few urban forestry projects for immediate contribution to the neighborhood.

4. An NGO isn’t a consultant

Working with an NGO is a great way to contribute to an urban forestry project. But Lynn Scarlett, head of the external affairs division for The Nature Conservancy, working with Amazon on the Berlin project, stressed that companies shouldn’t treat NGOs as consultants. 

"It’s a collaborative partnership between an NGO and a company," Scarlett said. "We have our goals, and those are always front and center stage for us. Always. We look at partnerships that advance our mission."

Scarlett said companies usually team with The Nature Conservancy when they’ve determined that there are shared goals but they don’t necessarily have the full knowledge to execute them. 

So while an NGO can help steer a company in the right direction, its goals might not overlap 100 percent with those of a company seeking to work on urban forestry. NGOs can act as the link between the money, the mission, the regulatory agencies and the population. 

"NGOs can help bring together all stakeholders required," said Kerstin Pfliegner, Germany director at The Nature Conservancy. "We can work well with governments and corporates while being close to civil society and communities."

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