Sustainable Design Starts with Trees

by EcoStreet on August 5, 2009

in Climate Change, Sustainable Lifestyle


The most distinctive quality of the urban environment lies in its landscape. Each individual city has its own sense of character, unique infrastructure, and physical presence. As the urban setting becomes increasingly advanced, we are leaving behind our roots – the tree canopy coverage in the developed city is declining. At present, many of world’s greatest cities lack substantial plant life. This observation isn’t just aesthetic, it is harmful on many levels. An increase in tree canopy coverage may require some painstaking effort to succeed, but could have enormous benefit if it does. Incorporating trees into the urban environment would serve to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn and ease the damage of deforestation – the two main roots of climate change. Right now, homes and other buildings account for 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the North America. Design and sustainability, both significant community objectives, can’t be sacrificed for one another. They must work together.

The city doesn’t “breathe” as well as a forest, contributing large quantities of carbon to the atmosphere with few sources of absorption. The earth, in order to give warmth to support life, needs a reasonable amount of greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide appears naturally in the atmosphere, exhaled by humans and involved in the photosynthesis of plants. Carbon is kept in check by a natural carbon cycle, a system which creates a balance between the carbon emitters (humans), and the carbon absorbers (plants). Oceans, land and air are all involved in the process.

After the industrial revolution, when humans began messing with the carbon levels in the atmosphere, the earth began to see increasing quantities of carbon being pumped into the system. And it’s been rising steadily since, resulting in a 1.4 degree increase in global average temperature. This might not seem like a lot, but consider the fact that the global average temperature during the last ice age was only 4 – 7 degrees colder than it is today, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The increase refers to the average temperature, not explicitly presenting the extremes on either side.

The city has taken a lot less time to grow than the forests. And we can’t undo what has been built. But by adding trees into the urban landscape, we can contribute to the solution of the unbalanced carbon cycle. Placed around a house or on a rooftop, trees can cool a building by 40%. Cutting back on air conditioner reliance means a decrease in the human- made greenhouse gas hydrofluorocarbons. An appropriate mix of trees can filter 88% of air pollution in a park, or 70% in a street setting. The benefit isn’t just limited to homes and buildings. On the streets, trees slow rain fall and absorb water, reducing rain flow into our sewers. More trees on the street means less overflow from sewers into the lake.

More trees would attract wildlife, make the city more aesthetically pleasing, and create more jobs. The benefits are numerous. Trees and urban design are a winning team, combining to reconcile urban culture and nature, a gap that must be bridged in order to achieve a truly sustainable city. Restoring an eco system is slow and demanding process. And unlike simply building a condo, it is unpredictable. But adding these lasting structures to the city’s infrastructure would have a greatly advantageous impact on our environment, our resources, and our money.

The potential difficulties of this goal lie in the nature of plant life. Will the slow growth of trees be frustrating enough for us to scrap the plan and come up with yet another quick and easy solution? Most of the trees that make up the canopy in major established cities have been rooted in place for a century or so, meaning that the skinny ones planted in addition will take equally as long to reach full growth. Cultivation in the urban environment won’t be easy, either. City trees die quickly in the drought of the hot summer months, as they bake against the concrete buildings and roads. If trees are to survive in the city, they would need to be planted in large groups and carefully tended.

Cities are built primarily with humans needs in mind. They create the illusion of a world solely for us. Doubling the tree canopy in the city is within our reach, and the cultivation of these entities will force us to recognize the true value of trees. The greater the esteem we assign them, the greater the benefit they will provide. Urban design and sustainability can no longer afford to clash. A green infrastructure starts with a return to the architecture of the natural world.

Photo credit: jeltovski

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Silent Spring August 13, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Nice article. But too idealistic. It could work but modern day society would need to adopt a radically new attitude towards their local environment and I just don’t see this happening anytime soon.

Cities are a completely different type of entity to forests. The mood and feel of cities invokes an attitude and a feeling that often contrasts sharply with the feelings one would feel within a more ‘green’ environment.

Some people love the feeling of cities. They like the feel of its hardness, its solidity and its predictability. They love the speed of the city, they love its flow. These people don’t really care for trees, plants and the like.

I don’t belong to this group but I am well aware of their existence. They will find it difficult to understand the usefulness of trees.

I wish we could develop more, lush ‘greener’ urban environments but there is an intrinsic incompatibility between cities and ecological entities like forests.
.-= Silent Spring´s last blog ..Nature is hitting back =-.


Michelle August 19, 2009 at 12:30 am

Since the Industrial Revolution the urban environment has been plagued with unsanitary conditions. Even though this has improved substantially, we are now faced with another dilemma. Our cities are severely polluted. On a bad day visibility in Mexico City is a few km. Even though this might be an extreme case, what is being done to reduce air pollution? This article discusses an “environmental fix” to our human induced problem. It makes sense. Trees help with carbon sequestration, and help reduce the urban heat island affect. Increasing tree coverage would not only be a positive public health measure but it also contributes to a more sustainable design of the urban city.


gcastillo5665 September 9, 2009 at 10:38 pm

I myself prefer living in the city, as opposed to anywhere else. But thriving cities like L.A. are filled with pollution, toxins, and carcinogens. Trees and plant life are pleasing to the eye, and are of course a benefit to the environment and the overall well-being of our planet. Every city should be doing its part to plant more trees, if only for the better of our world.
.-= gcastillo5665´s last blog ..Tunnels of Sun =-.


Joe September 13, 2009 at 7:22 pm

What about cities located in semi-arid or arid regions that, prior to urban development, supported little or no tree growth? It seems that tree plantings in such areas would be unsustainable.


Zenab September 21, 2009 at 3:49 am

Good Article, i like the way you have enhanced the value of nature if every human bieng becomes sustainable.


green journal
environment directory


Kyriaki (Sandy) Venetis November 23, 2009 at 1:47 am

Cities are actually slowly moving to become more environmentally friendly. Cities across the globe are increasing designing and retrofitting buildings to be more green. Most recently PNC Financial Services Group completed the installation of a six story living green wall, which the company claims is largest such structure in North America

There are two types of green walls, with one called a green façade, composed of climbing plants, such as ivy, adhering to a building. The other type, which PNC has, is a living wall on the side of the building that is separated from the actual building structure by anywhere from a few inches to a foot, and is composed of modular panels of vegetation with irrigation systems.

These living walls are also designed so that they don’t produce fruit, and don’t attract pests. Living green walls are becoming more prominent in urban areas because studies have shown that such plant structures do reduce the overall temperatures of their buildings, which in turn lower energy consumption.

Randy Sharp, a principal at Sharp & Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc, wrote in an article for Building Design + Construction, that “the reintroduction of vegetation into cities has been correlated with the reduction of the urban heat island effect, and therefore will reduce energy consumption. Cities are cooler and quieter through shading, evaporative transpiration, and the absorption of sound by green walls.”

The full article that I wrote is called ‘PNC Achieves New Green Milestone: The Largest Living Wall in North America,’ which also has a link to Mr. Sharp’s article, can be read at:


Garden Beet January 12, 2010 at 12:26 am

great post – you will be pleased to know that many governments (in Aust. at least) have streetscape strategies that involved planting trees along many roadside verges.

Trees can create an immense change to streetscape character as well as provide other environmental benefits. There is no reason why cities can not have trees incorporated into the urban design.


Seed Parade March 5, 2011 at 10:45 am

If every hman would become sustainable… well that raises the question do we have enough space for that on our Earth?
Well luckily there are plenty of parks in London, other european cities do suffer pollution though, needy of a redesign.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: