What if the answer to solving climate change was standing right next to you? Everyday you saw it, passed by it, even occasionally leaned against it but you weren’t aware that it was the solution every neighborhood and city needed. What is this answer that can arrest climate change? It’s your friendly neighborhood tree. In an honest and raw conversation with the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the organization Speak For The Trees, Hubber David Meshoulam sheds light on this amazing natural resource that should be every city’s first and impenetrable line of defense.
“Trees are critical assets in our infrastructure. They are more than just pretty things to look at.”
- What is so special about trees that you see them as the answer for many of the city’s climate challenges?
Trees are magic. They mitigate every environmental challenge we have from air pollution and carbon sequestration to community health. They also improve our mental health while reducing violence in neighborhoods and increasing property value.
- They reduce violence in neighborhoods?
The data shows that people who live in neighborhoods with green spaces care more for their communities. When people plant and care for trees, they are less stressed and are encouraged to get to know each other. The data is also telling regarding communities with similar racial and economic demographics but have disparate canopy coverages. Those with sparse coverage experience more violent occurrences than neighborhoods with more trees.
- So beyond building community, how can trees battle for BeanTown in the war on Climate Change?
Climate challenges unique to Boston are a rising sea level and increased precipitation. Trees are our greatest ally in deterring flooding from heavy rains. Leaves absorb water and it takes 24 to 48 hours for water to drain from a tree. This slows down the timeframe of the water reaching the ground which helps to reduce erosion.
Trees are also our champions for air and water quality. In cities like Boston, trees help counter the Heat Island Effect which is a result of a rise in temperature where there is a lot of asphalt and limited green spaces. By providing natural shade, trees significantly lower the need for air conditioning which helps to address any economic and health inequities for residents who can’t afford air conditioners.
- In order to provide that natural shade and be a defense against flooding, how many trees does a neighborhood need to have?
The goal for neighborhoods is 40% canopy coverage. Some neighborhoods have met that goal like West Roxbury which has close to 50% canopy coverage. But many other neighborhoods have only 9% coverage like East Boston and parts of Charlestown and DownTown Boston.
- How important is this for our city and how long do you think it would take for Boston to reach its canopy goal if we were to act now?
I started this organization because I believe saving trees and their benefit to our city is the most important issue. In terms of meeting a goal, there is no end-game although there are strategic objectives that should be reached within the next five to ten years. But overall, the city’s goal should be managing and growing an urban forest that would be continuous forever.
- It would appear that most Bostonians aren’t aware of the benefits of trees and their importance to the environment and human health. Why do you think that is?
People have tree blindness. They don’t think of trees as living things. Many don’t even notice trees when they walk by them. Our challenge is to open people’s eyes to the power and benefit of trees.
“We can’t take trees for granted anymore. We have to defend the trees we have and plant new ones for the future.”
- Boston is in the midst of a development boom. We see a lot of buildings going up with more concrete than green space. Why do you think restoring trees or planting them aren’t a part of that process?
I don’t know but this development boom does present challenges for green space and our trees. Trees are being cut down to make room for things like affordable housing, which is good but are we making our communities less environmentally affordable? The city needs to address how we can protect trees from being cut down or at least replace them. There might need to be a trade off or creative planning so that development can take place alongside tree protection. It’s essential that we defend the trees we have. I founded this organization because there was literally no one to speak for the trees. There was no coordinated messaging regarding the importance of trees and no one working on a city or regional scale to give trees a voice at at the table.
- Do you feel that our city politicians and officials aren’t aware of this urgent need?
They are very aware of the importance and benefits of trees. But trees aren’t the only issue on their plates when it comes to climate change. Right now the city works through the Department of Parks & Recreation, but their plates are also full and they lack the resources they need to move this issue forward. It’s our hope that Speak For The Trees can value-add to the city’s efforts but it’s a process that requires a building of trust and relationships. So we need to answer the question of how can we work together and what does the public private partnership look like?
- But is this an issue the city and organizations like Speak For The Trees can solve alone? Wouldn’t it require residents to be a part of the solution?
Of course, that’s the ideal. Our greatest asset is our shared human capital and tapping into that should be the goal whether it’s giving one’s time to help plant or care for a tree or financial support. Organizations like Speak For The Trees working alongside the city can help neighborhoods plant trees and teach residents what to look for and how to care for the trees in their communities.
- So if we don’t come together to curb climate change in our city and be aggressively proactive in planting trees, what will happen?
No matter what, the planet will survive. It has seen worse and life will always find a way. The threat is to human life and the livability on this planet, especially for the next generation. We don’t know what Climate Change will look like in the future but we can plant hope around it and build resiliency across the city and that needs to involve trees. I don’t believe trees are THE answer to eliminating Climate Change but they need to be a critical component of any solution we come up with. Trees are our allies. They care for us and we care for them. Without trees, we are that much more vulnerable.