The value of ecosystem services has, up until recently, gone largely unrecognized by governments and corporations. While nature is inherently valuable for a variety of obvious reasons, putting a price tag on it isn’t exactly a straightforward process. Companies such as Kering and Dow have begun to incorporate natural capital accounting into their practices, an intelligent move that offers a number of benefits across the board in terms of long-term sustainability — both economically and environmentally speaking. But what can local governments do to account for the value of nature in the urban environment?
New York City’s Department of Parks & Recreation (NYC Parks), the branch of local government responsible for the city’s public spaces, squares and parks, has found a way to calculate the ecological and economic benefits of the most basic of urban features: street trees.
In recent years, the agency has been responsible for creating new programs to help children, youth and adults be aware of the importance of caring for their urban landscape.
TreesCount! is one such program. In 2015, NYC Parks gathered 2,300 volunteers to teach them about the trees in their environment, their characteristics, condition, care requirements, measurements and how they benefit the surrounding community.
For months, groups of volunteers and monitors from NYC Parks performed a citywide tree census, collecting data on each of the city’s trees. The information gathered from these walks has now been amassed into an urban forest registry, which is available on the New York City Tree Map. The map provides statistics on each of the 685,781 registered trees, a calendar of activities related to tree care, the total number of species and information regarding the most common trees in each neighborhood.
During the street tree survey process, each tree was assigned a unique ID number, as well as a color indicating species. What’s more, the exact location of each tree is accompanied by its corresponding image in Google Street View. The Tree Map allows users to report issues, and most significantly, provides a summary of the ecological benefits for each tree translated into an economic value.
Users can see the amount of rainwater each tree retains each year and the money they save each year. The amount of electricity conserved is also estimated, as well as the reduction of air pollution. These numbers are formulated with figures laid out by the U.S. Forest Service that estimate the total ecological benefits a tree gives in dollars. Estimates include citywide savings of:
- $10,913,204 for stormwater intercepted each year
- $85,358,133 for energy conserved each year
- $6,748,345 for air pollutants removed each year
- $4,199,024 for carbon dioxide reduced each year
In total, New York City street trees have been found to offer roughly $111,417,758 in annual benefits.