The Forest Where We Live

Want to grow a legacy in your community? Look no further than your own backyard.

This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Magazine.

All of us, even those of us who live in Wisconsin’s cities and small towns, are forest dwellers. The trees that line our streets and shade our homes are part of what’s called the “urban forest.” Trees beautify our communities and provide shelter for birds and other wildlife, and they provide other benefits, too: they reduce stormwater runoff, lower utility bills, increase property values, and improve air quality. Foresters, city planners, and others are gaining the ability to better measure these benefits and new tools make it easier for everyone to understand and nurture this precious resource. 

A better view

"In the past, urban foresters tended to focus on trees in public areas -- along streets and in parks," said DNR Urban Forester Dick Rideout. "We want homeowners and renters to realize they’re part of the urban forest, too. And they can be urban foresters in their own right: they can help the community maximize the benefits that trees can provide." 

New technology makes it easy for anyone to see and analyze the tree cover of a city or town. “In the past you'd have to go up in a plane to get a ‘canopy view’ or bird’s-eye view of your home and the surrounding community,” Rideout said. “Now all you have to do is go to Google maps or Bing. Use the satellite view option to look at your home from above, and you'll see the rounded treetops that create that green canopy in your city or town.” Viewing a city or town from the canopy view allows people to move beyond thinking of city trees as merely a beautification issue, Rideout said. Looking at a satellite image can show areas where trees could be planted throughout the community and, perhaps, identify wooded areas that could be formally preserved. 

Measuring benefits

Planting trees might seem like an unaffordable luxury in these tough economic times, when cities face tight budgets and many homeowners and renters have seen their wages stagnate or decline. But scientists have begun to realize that trees can actually save money for homeowners and municipalities, and they’ve developed ways to measure and account for those benefits. In broad terms, a community’s so-called “grey infrastructure” -- the streets, sidewalks, storm drains, and buildings that make up our urban and suburban environments -- exists side-by-side with the “green infrastructure,” or the trees, soils, rivers, lakes, and other natural features that shape and are shaped by human forces. 

Natural systems can help control or mitigate the disturbance that the built community places on the landscape. Furthermore, in contrast to grey infrastructure, the value of trees and other natural features increases over time. “The value of grey infrastructure is the highest the day it’s done,” Rideout said. “You lay out a new street, put down a new sidewalk, and immediately it starts to degrade. With trees it’s the exact opposite. When you plant a tree, you have to wait a while for it to start providing benefits. But as the tree grows each year, it actually provides more and more benefits over time; it appreciates in value.” 

New tools help local government officials determine the dollar amounts of those benefits. Various applications at the i-Tree website ( allow planners and other decision makers determine where to plant trees and provide estimated cost-benefit analyses. For instance, over a timespan of 40 years, a thousand urban trees will intercept about 55 million gallons of stormwater runoff, sequester more than 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide, and provide heating and cooling savings totalling $1.5 million.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the benefits provided by trees within a city are provided by older, large-canopy trees. This concept is particularly important to take into account when communities consider new construction projects. Old conventional wisdom advised taking down mature trees on a building site, leveling the lot, and replacing trees with new young trees when construction was completed. But an exponential number of young trees would be required to provide the same benefits as those more mature trees.

What to plant

Diversity is the spice of life, and it’s a good rule of thumb for tree plantings, too. Diverse plantings provide a greater range of habitat and more visual interest. Perhaps more importantly, a varied planting as a whole is more resistant to diseases or pests that might wipe out a single-species planting. A full fifth of all Wisconsin’s community trees are currently ash trees, so communities around our state stand to lose 20 percent of their trees as the emerald ash borer continues to spread. In an effort to be sure such a situation doesn’t occur again, urban foresters urge planners to ensure that a particular tree planting contains no more than five percent of one species, 10 percent of one genus, and 20% of one family.

Tree species vary widely in size and appearance, so it’s important to choose the right tree for each particular location. A variety of online resources provide help regarding tree selection, and county extension agents can also help. 

A living legacy

Everyone can play a part in restoring Wisconsin’s tree canopy. Rideout stressed that you don’t have to own property to help make a difference. "One resident, whether they’re the owner or not, can get permission to plant a tree and know that tree will grow up to provide benefits to everyone," he said.


“We want people to know that they can be part of your community’s legacy by planting trees,” Rideout said. “Plan carefully and plant trees on your own property as well as supporting your community’s efforts.

Lori Compas is a freelance writer, photographer, and communications consultant based in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.

“Everyone can connect to the urban forest. That’s the beauty of understanding that we’re all part of the larger ecosystem.”

Case Study: 'Taking Root' in Oshkosh

“Oshkosh used to have a bad case of low self-esteem,” said Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and CEO of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation. “We always thought other cities were better than us and prettier than us. But eventually we decided we should be proud of what we have here.”

In an effort to build on the city’s strengths, the community foundation undertook a visioning project with city residents in 2009. A consultant coordinated surveys and a series of listening sessions, and opinions were sought from all over the community. The need for more community trees was one of the top priorities that emerged from the visioning process. Connolly-Kessler and other supporters swung into action, acquiring donations from private foundations and individuals as well as grants from the Department of Natural Resources and the city of Oshkosh. 

The resulting initiative, called “Taking Root,” is a unique public-private project that aims to plant more than 2,000 trees and flower beds along streets and in parks and other public spaces, as well as add bike lanes, widen terraces, and install welcome signs on major thoroughfares. City forester Bill Sturm worked with a hired consultant to create a tree-planting plan and the trees in each phase were professionally planted in a short period of time. Volunteers will provide ongoing care under the general direction of the city forester.

Though it might seem counter-intuitive, the economic recession ended up being a boon to the project. “Because housing construction had slowed down so much, the nurseries had lots of good-sized trees they needed to move,” Connolly-Kessler said. “They were happy to find homes for those trees, and we were happy to take them.” Project managers had estimated a cost of around $200 per large nursery tree, but the actual cost ended up averaging only $70 per tree, including planting. The surplus revenue was rolled over into subsequent phases of the project, allowing the entire process to move much more quickly than planned.

The project is a model for other communities. A community foundation with fundraising and volunteer recruitment capabilities, when teamed up with a city government’s oversight and management, can result in a healthier, more beautiful community. 

Case Study: Greening Milwaukee

Greening Milwaukee is a non-profit organization committed to educating the public about the environmental and social benefits of trees and increasing Milwaukee’s canopy cover to 40 percent.

“Beautification is great, but that’s not why we plant trees,” said Joe Wilson, Greening Milwaukee’s executive director. “We plant trees to mitigate stormwater runoff and to add to and replenish the tree canopy that we lost due to Dutch elm disease, and the trees we stand to lose to emerald ash borer.”

Wilson acknowledged that landowners are often reluctant to plant trees, but with education they see that the benefits outweigh the concerns. Landowners are often worried about the cost of trees and planting, downed limbs and fallen leaves, and the limited amount of space that’s available on city lots. “We show them that not planting will cost them in the long run, Wilson said. “We show them the benefits of stormwater runoff, utility costs, and air quality. We show them that their home value will increase if they have shade trees or fruit trees. They realize it’s a good advantage to plant a tree in the right place and maintain it for the years to come.”

Wilson said some people don’t realize that trees come in many different sizes and have a wide range of characteristics. “When I say “tree” to people, they picture this 30- or 40-foot monster thing coming into their yard. If you were car-shopping, you could go to a dealer and look at 18-wheelers -- that’s transportation -- but you could also look at a Smart car, or you could buy something in between.” Wilson stressed that homeowners and renters should think about what they want a tree to provide -- popular desires are shade, habitat, and visual interest -- and choose a tree that serves those needs.

In addition to working with homeowners, Greening Milwaukee also partners with public schools to remove asphalt from playgrounds and plant trees in its place. A key part of the program is educating the students about why tree planting and tree care is important. “We have young stewards who understand why this was done,” Wilson said. “We talk about how hot asphalt gets in the summer, how the shade will help them, and how that fits into the bigger picture of the city as a whole. The stewards go home and tell their parents all this, and then we start seeing them wanting to plant trees, too.”

Case Study: Branching Out

Shrinking municipal budgets are forcing the burden of planting and maintaining community trees onto individual homeowners, community foundations, and other sources of private funding. A variety of tree-planting initiatives have sprung up around Wisconsin to increase public awareness of trees’ importance and expand funding opportunities for tree-planting projects.

The “First Downs For Trees” program aims to restore the urban tree canopy of Brown County through a partnership between the Green Bay Packers, the Oneida Tribe, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and others. The Packers donate one tree for each first down earned during the regular season. Now supplemented by a grant from the US Forest Service, the program has helped plant -?- trees in Brown County. 

In the “Root, Root, Root for the Brewers” program, the Milwaukee Brewers donate one tree for every 20,000 tickets sold during the regular season. Last fall 150 trees were donated to be planted on the nearby Hank Aaron State Trail. 

The Madison Mallards, along with the Madison Parks Department and a local landscaper, recently started the “Break a Bat, Plant a Tree.” A tree is planted in a city park every time a Mallards team member breaks a wooden bat at home during the regular season. 

And in an effort to combat climate change, Polar Bears International has teamed up the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to plant trees in various projects around the state. In one project, the city of Sparta will enjoy a rejuvenated tree canopy after facing catastrophic canopy loss due to the emerald ash borer. In addition to providing carbon sequestration and other benefits, the project will raise awareness among community members and encourage more tree-planting projects on private property. 

“These tree-planting initiatives are exciting because trees are now being raised to a much greater platform, making a greater number of people aware of the benefits and engaged in making a difference,” said Laura Wyatt, DNR Partnership Specialist. “In addition to the valuable environmental services trees provide they’re also a tremendously effective community building project which brings people of all kinds together for this simple act.”

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