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The Next Economy
How Brands Can Help Communities Thrive in a Changing Climate

While heat is the leading cause of weather-related illnesses and deaths in both Canada and the US, companies can explore nature-based solutions to help reverse this trend and foster spaces where people can thrive.

Cities are heating up; strategically placed trees can bring relief

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2023 was the warmest year on record, recognizing many significant climate events. In Canada, communities were devastated by record-breaking heat.

Dense urban environments, along with outdoor workers, are disproportionally affected by extreme heat. Heat is the leading cause of weather-related illnesses and deaths in both Canada and the United States. While this data is troubling, companies can explore nature-based solutions to help reverse this trend and foster spaces where people can thrive.

Green spaces and trees can help counteract the causes and consequences of excessive urban heat. In fact, national collaborative projects such as the NOAA Urban Heat Island mapping campaign assess some of the hottest neighborhoods to help inform cooling strategies such as tree planting.

Urban forests provide a wide range of benefits for human health and wellness. Although our understanding of the positive effects of trees on people continues to grow, studies show that trees reduce the urban heat island effect and promote thermal comfort. Open-source tools such as American ForestsTree Equity Score National Map document how communities of color experience an average of 33 percent less tree canopy (and its life-saving benefits) — which can help organizations identify where trees are needed based on metrics such as surface temperature, community health and socio-demographic composition.

The power of place to grow urban forests

Privately owned land can represent up to 80 percent of urban forests in communities. For example, in the City of Toronto, Canada, 55 percent of its urban forest is owned and managed by private landowners. While districts and municipalities contribute significantly to planting and growing trees on public land for community benefit, commercial land can also play an important role in cooling our cities. Incorporating sustainably managed trees in places such as industrial parks or commercial properties not only makes them more attractive spaces to work — they also provide shade and reduce air pollution. When trees are distributed equitably across different neighborhoods and land use types, more people can access their benefits.

Commercial landowners can have an impact

Companies can enhance their direct environment by incorporating sustainably managed trees on their property, around their facilities, and parking lots. Although healthy and mature trees are a key facet of urban beautification, they are also important green infrastructure. When designed intentionally, these natural elements can reduce the pressures of built environments on our communities by capturing greenhouse gases and reducing stormwater runoff. Moreover, the shade that trees cast can help reduce energy costs to cool off adjacent buildings.

Long before society felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers explored the positive links between employee wellbeing and contact with nature, as well as views of green spaces. Trees and greenery promote social connection and behavior, as well as improve immune systems and mental health. More and more US initiatives recognize the ways trees restore physical health and boost the wellbeing of entire communities. For example, the Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives campaign brings together inspirational stories of organizations who have amplified human connections to nature in the pursuit of healthier lives for all.

While trees offer far-reaching benefits to societies at large, they can also bring significant improvements to individual sites. Dr. Janani Sivarajah, a researcher with l’Université Laval’s research chair on urban trees, suggests that urban trees are catalysts for health, climate resilience and collaboration. In a changing climate where disparities overburden communities, there is no better time to put these catalysts into action.

How to contribute to sustainably managed urban forests

In 2023, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) released the SFI Urban and Community Forestry Sustainability Standard. This standard serves as a roadmap for creating, tracking and improving an organization’s urban forest across the US and Canada. With 16 objectives, plus clear guiding principles and indicators, the standard offers a way for organizations of all sizes to assess the sustainability of their urban or community forest.

For organizations seeking to maximize the health and wellbeing benefits of trees while simultaneously minimizing risks, pursuing thematic certification for Community Wellbeing and Human Health enables them to achieve their goals. Moreover, certification to SFI’s Urban and Community Forestry Sustainability Standard involves an objective, third-party audit to demonstrate the organization’s rigor and commitment to sustainable urban forest management.

When healthy trees reach maturity, they provide even more for the people around them. As our cities heat up, we can use all of the solutions that we can cultivate.

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