Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: City is tops again as a great home for big crop of trees

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With the flurry of national press Pittsburgh has been getting, we'd better step up the pace of hotel construction, get our spare bedrooms advertised on AirB&B and send a buzz through the network of couch surfers. We're sure to get more company in the coming years.

Our little gem of a city has been at or near the top of lists of places to invest in and raise a family and that have the most public art, best housing prices, best cost of living, best view, most breathtaking entry point and best (and maybe most) neighborhoods.

But of all the lists I've seen, Pittsburgh's status in a recent report by National Geographic makes me the proudest.

Of the cities featured in an article headlined "Nine Cities That Love Their Trees," Pittsburgh was cited as having the greatest canopy among New York, Philadelphia, Austin, Detroit, Washington, Baltimore, Portland and Tampa.

With 42 percent of our city's land visibly green from space, we top the list on which Philadelphia comes in last, with 20 percent. Austin and D.C. are the only cities close to us, with 37 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

Danielle Crumrine, executive director of Tree Pittsburgh, said the National Geographic reporter was referred by a researcher in Vermont who worked on Tree Pittsburgh's master plan.

"The reporter told us she was glad for the referral because she never would have thought of Pittsburgh" in connection with tree canopy, Ms. Crumrine said.

The value of trees has been formulated in terms of property value, air and water quality, wildlife habitat, crime reduction and lower energy bills. If trees sent us a bill for all they do -- mainly absorbing carbon dioxide and water pollutants and supplying us with oxygen -- we wouldn't be able to afford them.

They're expensive enough to buy, and yet people make that investment only to bind them in strings of lights, hit them with trucks and smother their roots with pavement and their base -- the tree's nerve center -- with mulch.

Counting the initial investment and costs of regular maintenance, trees repay us in spades. The U.S. Forest Service reports that for every dollar spent to plant and maintain a tree, $2 to $5 in value comes back to us.

One of their greatest services is catching storm water.

In its 25-year plan, Philadelphia's Department of Water initiated a storm water management strategy using green infrastructure.

Pittsburgh is lucky to have the nonprofit Tree Pittsburgh, an advocacy organization that trains residents about tree care and operates a nursery, and TreeVitalize, a public-private source for new trees. The goal of TreeVitalize in 2008 was to plant 20,000 trees by 2013. The 20,000th tree lives near Commonwealth Place in Point State Park.

Tree Pittsburgh's urban forest master plan in 2012 reported the significant impact of our roughly 2.5 million trees. They absorb 13,900 tons of carbon dioxide and remove 519 tons of pollution at a savings of $3.6 million a year. In 2011, they saved local residents $3 million on energy bills. Street trees alone diverted 41.8 million gallons of storm water that year.

There is no cost benefit analysis that can put a value on trees to the human soul.

Three years ago, TreeVitalize planted a street tree several feet from my stoop, one among dozens it planted in my neighborhood that year. When it was little, I ran a hose from the outside faucet to water it regularly. I formed such a nurturing attachment that every time a big truck sweeps by, I check the tree for damage.

One neighbor tends his street tree with particular affection. He and his wife discovered the Greek poet, Fotis Varelis, and a poem he wrote. They had it cast on a metal sign by their tree:

"You the passer by, you who love me,

let the others admire the castles

and listen to me:

my fate has been marked by a ravine singer

and the trembling in my foliage, it's a song,

the deep voice of life.

For you a sweet memory

but I, a tiny tree,

I need it for faith, to grow taller and taller

and stare beyond these walls."

You can find the cost benefits of any given tree by typing in your ZIP code, the tree type and diameter of its trunk at www.treebenefits.com/calculator/index.cfm.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com citywalk.

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