Interview with Author Jill Jonnes

In advance of her lecture in Baltimore on September 27th, we spoke with Jill Jonnes about her latest book Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape.

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Published September 07, 2016

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How did the experiences of your child and early adulthood shape your perspective of urbanism? 

My father was a diplomat, so I grew up in many capital cities. My formative years, from fourth through sixth grade, were spent in Paris. Paris is famous for its trees and public parks, so I was very aware of trees from an early age. We then moved to Washington, D.C., another city of trees. Growing up in these cities imprinted the need for trees upon me.

When I moved to New York as an adult, I noticed a change in the city’s landscape – namely the lack of trees in the way I was accustomed. I realized that when you suddenly move somewhere without trees, you notice immediately.

Why trees? What do trees say about history and our current urban landscapes?

If you look at cities, most people are very aware of the built environment. They comment on the infrastructure, architecture, and overall facade. The same can be noticed about the grown environment. Once you’re aware of the greenery, or lack thereof, around you, you shift your perspective of what makes a successful city. 

For most of our history, trees have been a marker of affluence. Neighborhoods which have more trees are perceived as nicer and therein have higher property values. Trees give the impression that a neighborhood is maintained and well kempt. 

Many East coast cities developed over 100 years ago, and many grown environments also have their roots in those early communities. The original trees that were planted, however, are ever reaching their expiration date. Large trees, such as oaks, which have lived for almost centuries are now replaced with smaller, less enduring species that do not have the same benefits for urban environments. This leads us to new problems with the maintenance and growth of our already dwindling urban forests.

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How do trees benefit urban communities?

There are many significant benefits to city trees. One of the largest is the reduction of storm water. Pavement is impervious, causing downtown flooding after a large storm. Trees help lessen this burden by absorbing that water.

Additionally, the leaves of trees provide shade on city streets while simultaneously acting as a natural form of air conditioning. The leaves respirate that same water absorbed from runoff to create a natural cooling effect.

Trees are also linked with public health benefits. Community mapping of tree canopies correlate with better birth outcomes for pregnant women and lower stress levels among populations.

How can residents better their urban communities?

Look around and see what the state of trees are in your neighborhood, near your workplace, and in your community. Trees, as a marker of affluence, can lead to greater economic activity and overall health of communities. As such, it’s important to tell your elected officials about the state of those very trees you observed. We need to start reinstalling nature into our built environments, and much of that effort starts with citizen effort that is recognized by elected officials.

What is the Baltimore Tree Trust and what is your connection to the organization?

I founded the Baltimore Tree Trust, along with the help of countless others, and it is connected to Tree Baltimore. In collaboration with many under Tree Baltimore, the Tree Trust works to restore Baltimore’s urban forest. With tree keepers who are trained to care for trees throughout the city and educate others. Volunteers also help plant trees throughout the city to help reintroduce trees to areas where they once thrived. It is the hope of the Tree Trust and others to complete a full tree inventory in the next few years to have a greater picture of the overall tree health of the city.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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