1. Opinion

Column: On Florida Arbor Day, money does grow on trees

The University of South Florida is mapping trees, such as this live oak on the school’s Tampa campus.
The University of South Florida is mapping trees, such as this live oak on the school’s Tampa campus.
Published Jan. 19, 2017

Your parents were wrong: Money does grow on trees.

Tampa Bay rakes up tens of millions of dollars from its urban forest annually. Leafy canopies lower summer air conditioning bills, more shade means less blade to maintain thousands of acres of grass, and trees contribute to lower asthma rates and birth defects by removing air pollutants.

Today, on Florida Arbor Day, Tampa stands proud as a national leader as a place that recognizes trees as economic drivers and gets past the false dichotomy of economy versus environment.

One of the great breakthroughs among city planners in recent decades has been awareness that a city runs not just on engineering, but on biology and ecology as well.

Tampa demonstrated that kind of thinking in moving its leading tree official, Kathy Beck, from the parks and recreation department on to its chief planning team. Tampa approaches trees as part of a green public works system, the living equivalent of roads and bridges. It's a case of what Beck calls "green meets gray."

Part of how Tampa gets it right on trees is that planners can shield themselves from partisanship, protest and profit motives by relying on science. University of Florida urban forester Rob Northrop has brought to bear the expertise of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences on what, where, and how many trees to plant. UF/IFAS scientists Michael Andreu, Andrew Koeser, and Paul Monaghan and the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service's Geoff Donovan have also provided valuable expertise.

To get the biggest bang for tree planting and maintenance bucks, Tampa turns to Northrop for information on which trees provide the greatest shade, which can be planted closest to sidewalks and parking lots without root growth buckling pavement, and which species best withstand floods in a city already affected by sea-level rise.

Drilling down even farther, the University of South Florida has begun mapping individual trees. So planners know, for example, that the live oak on the 4200 block of Willow Drive has a 38-inch diameter and a $453 annual payoff.

Through the painstaking work of compiling an inventory of a city's green infrastructure, policy makers can make more informed decisions on where to focus resources.

Just as the most decrepit or most used roads get more attention, key trees might get pruned or watered more often. The city has assessed the health of trees that line its evacuation routes. This kind of information would have been valuable to transportation officials in the San Francisco area, for example, before a commuter train was derailed last year when it struck a fallen tree.

Northrop and other natural resource scientists see intrinsic value in trees. But he recognizes the tremendous economic pressures communities are under, so he and economists collaborate to get at the straight-dollar costs and benefits.

The most recent study of Tampa's trees estimated that they save the city $35 million a year in reduced costs for public health, stormwater management, energy savings, soil erosion management, and other services.

Even within the ranks of the forestry discipline, Northrop is a rarity with his expertise in urban forestry. The only other UF/IFAS urban forestry agent is Larry Figart of Duval County Extension, who assists the city of Jacksonville.

The Society of American Forestry didn't start accrediting university programs in the discipline until 2005. There's not even consensus on a definition of urban forestry, though Beck describes it as the science of addressing both people with tree problems and trees with people problems.

In coming years, Florida and the nation will continue to grow and urbanize. One study suggests that in the next half century, 7 million acres in Florida alone could convert from rural and natural to urban use.

The push into formerly natural areas will bring with it more impacts on trees. At the same time, we'll need trees more than ever to create and maintain livable cities.

Let's love our trees. More than hugs, they need science. The quiet efforts of planners and scientists are our best bet for green cities that inspire us to marvel year-round at the natural canopies above us and the ground beneath our feet. Happy Florida Arbor Day.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.


  1. Health experts say that the people who benefit most from fluoridation are the poor, who often don't have access to the foods and dental health products they need to keep their teeth in good shape.
    A retired dentist reminds us of the value of having fluoridated the water systems.
  2. In this image from video, presiding officer Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swears in members of the Senate for the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (Senate Television via AP) [AP]
    The Senate should consider new evidence, hear from witnesses and conduct the trial of President Donald Trump in full public view.
  3. A shopper carries groceries in a plastic bag after shopping at the Silver Street Market in downtown Albuquerque, N.M. [ROBERTO E. ROSALES  |  AP]
    Here’s what readers are saying in Tuesday’s letters to the editor.
  4. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
    Across Tampa Bay and the nation, the holiday is a day of service.
  5. Leonard Pitts [undefined]
    Leonard Pitts explains that diversity doesn’t happen by itself.
  6. San Francisco has benefited from the growth of nearby Silicon Valley. That metro area added 30,000 jobs in the past year.
    Here’s some interesting commentary from the opposite poles of the political spectrum.
  7. Thousands rallied and marched from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center to the Florida Historic Capitol to demand more money for public schools this month in Tallahassee. [TORI LYNN SCHNEIDER/TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT  |  AP]
    Here’s what readers have to say in Sunday’s letters to the editor.
  8. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to members of the Florida Legislature during a joint session of lawmakers this week. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
    Here’s what readers are saying in Saturday’s letters to the editor.
  9. Presiding Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swears in members of the Senate for the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. [AP]
    Here’s what readers are saying in Monday’s letters to the editor.
  10. Jomari DeLeon, is pictured at at Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy, Florida August 7, 2019. Jomari is three years into a 15-year sentence for drug trafficking. She sold 48 tablets of prescription tablets over two days to an undercover officer. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times]
    Women, Hispanics and residents from smaller counties are disproportionately serving long drug sentences that are no longer in place.