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Trees make us healthier, speaker says

By Chloe Kowalski ’12, Contributing Writer
DECEMBER 5, 2011

Imagine your city has a spare $1 million. Then, try telling the city commission the money should not go to improving education, roads, sewer lines, public health, or social services. Instead, the funds should go to planting trees.

Sound crazy?

For Will Wilson, associate biology professor at Duke University, it’s all in a day’s work.

“How do I say ‘No, take $1 million from the pre-K program and plant trees with it?’ To do that, you really have to know how it’s going to help the city,” he says.

Holding a doctorate in physics from the University of Hawaii, Wilson recently began working with the city of Durham, N.C., to encourage planting more vegetation in city areas. Last Friday — on Arbor Day — Wilson visited Furman to ask and explain the question: What good are urban trees?

For starters, Wilson said trees help keep a city cooler during the hot summer. Shopping malls and areas with lots of development can have temperatures 10 to 15 degrees warmer than forested areas.

“What we’ve done is we’ve removed the trees, we’ve removed that cooling process, and now we’re stuck with the heat,” he said

Wilson noted a connection between areas with low levels of urban vegetation to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. He said the poor are even more disadvantaged without green space.

Studies, Wilson said, show that as vegetation increases, domestic violence and stress levels decrease, while child development and air quality improves. Furthermore, water evaporation decreases with less impervious surfaces, which translates into better ozone levels and rainfall.

The bottom line, Wilson said, is that people matter in the equation for determining sustainable ways of life, and people have to recognize the positive benefits of creating green canopies. In budgeting for social programs, he said, cities need to consider the long-term implications of improving mental, physical and environmental health through planting urban trees.

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