What is the value of common area planting improvements?
For private homes or communities, the answer is relatively simple. Certainly the sense of quality and endurance gained by residents is important. And sure, it looks nice. Keep in mind, though, that the main function of these improvements is the protection of property values.
What about plantings in public spacings: for example, median plantings? Is the expense justifiable?
The tree inquisition
A few weeks ago, NBC-2 ran a short piece on the cost of current phase plantings for Lee County (the same applies in Collier). The story was relentlessly hyped, with sound bites asking if these expenses were appropriate when so many are out of work. Why do we spend a million dollars was the big question, breathlessly delivered on air and repeated in a story online:
“The funding comes from a fund that commissioners reserved for landscaping in 2005. Since then, the county cut more than 100 jobs and employees have not seen a pay raise in three years.”
In response, Karen Hawes, Lee County manager, “… admits” — are we not getting judgmental here? — “the County could have spent the money differently, but she doesn’t think pay raises would have been a good idea.”
“I have to look at everyone, 2,000 employees the same way. This isn’t enough money to [make an impact]…”
This statement by Ms. Hawes is buried in the story, and was not mentioned online. The report is simply sensational “journalism,” a word so stretched nowadays that we hardly remember the days when a reporter could actually be trusted.
Over in central Florida, TV station WFTV jumps on the bandwagon with this salacious note:
“With every drop of the shovel, your dollars are being quickly spent to install more than 1,000 palm trees, which cost at least $500 each, along just four miles of the Turnpike near Winter Garden.”
State law provides that at least 1.5 percent of highway construction funds be used for planting improvements. And this column has never been shy about pointing out exactly how wastefully this money is actually used, mostly by hiring incompetent landscape architects and by not providing a system to assess the health of plantings after a year, two years, and five years. Have a look around Collier, for example, where juxtaposed materials are pruned into silly forms because the wrong plants were used, and where dead trees, failed because of poor specification, are replaced at taxpayer expense.
Aside from the disingenuous claims, how do we evaluate these plantings? Do they actually have a value?
Figuring the need
There are “soft” benefits, of course: a sense of well-being in the motoring public; a sense of county identity; improved driver safety; water quality improvements, and travel way identity. There’s more: the Phoenix Tree and Shade Master Plan points out that public plantings are solutions multipliers — actually providing far more benefit than the cost of construction and maintenance.
It goes on to list some of these benefits: cooling the heat island of cities, improving air quality, strengthening the local economy, promoting smart growth, and creating walkable communities. Quite a list for a few trees, I must say.
And of course trees grow in value over time. In fact, some trees become so valuable that estimating the value to the community has become quite regularized. For example, the Davey Tree Expert Company — trucks for this big national company are readily visible around town — has a website that easily calculates the value of trees as a function of trunk size. This site provides a “first order approximation” of tree value, which is refined with local conditions.
The math of your tree
A deeper calculation is found on the i-Tree Vue website, which was conceived by the US Forest Service as a methodology for determining carbon storage, carbon sequestration, and pollution removal for a given species and location.
There is actually quite a bit more to this important work. The web site offers a suite of tools that one uses to calculate the value of trees.
One tool, for example, is called i-Tree Species (can we please let this be the last instance of i-ware?). The tool creates a tree index value based on user ranking of several criteria: air pollution removal, temperature reduction, ultraviolet reduction, wind reduction, and several more. This is a smart approach.
In the end, what we have here is a case of TV “reports” that entirely miss the mark. Removing these important plantings will save a bit of money, but at the expense of long-term community weal.
It is, as Paul Krugman pointed out last week, a case of eating our seed corn, and it is not sustainable.