Trees for Cities (Tree planting charity)

overall rating:

1.5

planets

Alexandra Nikolin
7/6/2021
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Trees for Cities is a UK charity founded in 1993 which works towards making urban areas greener by planting trees. By planting trees around cities and in schools, the charity aims to revitalize old spaces and educate children about growing food and healthy eating. The charity started in London but has now expanded across the UK and internationally, currently operating across 26 cities. Planting trees in cities is extremely important, not only due to the direct benefits trees in urban areas bring, which will be discussed below, but as it also contributes towards larger environmental goals. For example, the London Environmental Strategy (published in 2018) aims to mitigate climate change, improve air quality etc. and one of the ways in which London will reach these goals is by increasing tree cover by 10% by 2050.

Overall, there is nothing that the charity is doing that is unsustainable and making cities greener is very important on our journey to living more sustainably, especially as around 80% population lives in urban regions, however it seems that the work could be done better, hence the surprising low score. Firstly, simply planting trees does not seem like the most effective ways to make cities more sustainable. Public transport, incorporation of large green spaces, and infrastructure needs to be central to the conversation, and when looking at including more trees and biodiversity, structures like green walls and green roofs are great options but not mentioned by Trees for Cities. Secondly, if looking for a general tree planting scheme to support, unless your objective is for more trees to be planted in cities, a more widely beneficial and effective programme can be found for aims such as carbon offsetting, increasing biodiversity, supporting communities etc. 

What it's made of:

1.75

To date, Trees for Cities has planted 1,117,899 trees, with 108,562 trees being planted this year. A range of diverse trees are planted in urban environments which bring many benefits. The trees produce oxygen, filter pollutants, and absorb carbon dioxide, helping to mitigate climate change, with trees in London storing 2,367,000 tonnes carbon, a service valued at £147 million. As a mature tree can absorb 470L water daily, trees can also help with flood protection, especially since many surfaces in cities are non-permeable. Trees have important cooling properties as they can reduce temperatures in urban areas by 2-8 degrees, reducing the impact of global warming, and can also reduce air conditioning and heating needs from nearby buildings by 30% and 20-50%, respectively. Having diverse trees planted around cities increases biodiversity , can increase property values, and has been proven to improve mental health and wellbeing. Trees for Cities also have schemes specifically planting trees in schools, where they grow “edible playgrounds” where fruit trees are planted. This also has many benefits as it improves the air quality, educates and is encouraging of healthy eating, and combats nature deficit disorder. Some examples of international projects include training horticultural skills in Ethiopia and tree planting in Kenyan, Tanzanian and Peruvian schools.

However, it appears that some of the tree planting is simply symbolic. An article on their website discusses planting trees around the G7 summit, but only 7 trees were planted. I am unconvinced that all the benefits that trees in urban areas can bring are yielded from 7 trees. The cost to plant a tree is stated as £6, which is much more expensive than previous tree planting schemes I have reviewed e.g., Ripple Africa, Trees for the Future, which were both 25p per tree. However, this may be due to more mature trees being planted in cities. Trees for Cities allows corporations to offset their carbon through them, however the details were very vague and unconvincing; the website states that “species selected to enhance woodland survival and resilience” will be planted at a “specified location” and “guaranteed for a set period of time”. I emailed to ask for further details about how species were selected, where they were planted, how long they were guaranteed to live for, and whether they could share any figures regarding carbon offsetting, however a response did not come in time. I think that there are more effective tree planting schemes for carbon offsetting that are more transparent, restore deforested regions or work towards deforestation, and have a greater tree planting capacity than in cities. 

How it's made:

1.75

Trees for Cities state that they work with local communities, however there is limited information as to how involved communities are and whether the tree planting is done with the local communities’ needs in mind.
A major concern I have is whether the work done will bring long-lasting impacts i.e., be sustainable, which is centered around tree longevity. Cities are very dynamic areas where development is constant, so there is the risk that the trees may simply get cut down as new plans are made. From my research, it appears that trees are only safe from this if a tree preservation order is obtained, however I do not believe that all trees planted will have that. Therefore, there is the possibility that the trees will not fully mature or be standing for the length of time that allows for long-term benefits, such as carbon mitigation, to be observed.

Planting trees in urban environments will bring net positives and is inherently sustainable, bringing about social, economic, and environmental benefits. However, if looking for a tree planting charity to help support communities or offset large amounts of carbon, the lack of detailed information about the steps taken when planting trees would make me hesitant about choosing this over other charities. I am unconvinced this is tackling the main sustainability issues, especially when working internationally in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. Planting trees in schools is great for children to become educated and gain interest in conservation, but regions such as these have immediate climate problems that need solutions, such as food security, lack of income, and water availability. Tree planting schemes working towards solutions directly, such as agroforestry, may be more sustainable and effective. The limited information about how much input local communities have also makes me doubtful about whether the problems currently being experienced are being addressed by the work done.

Who makes it:

1.75

Trees for Cities is very financially transparent, publishing financial records in the annual impact report. Trustees also have ethical criteria for any long-term investments so that companies whose actions go against the work of the charity are not invested in, however I could not find the exact companies that are invested in so was unable to verify these claims. There have also been promises made regarding senior management. Trees for Cities is an equal opportunities employer and assesses pay against similar roles within the market. In total, only 4 employees earn over £60k total benefits with only one employee making £90-100k. It seems that senior management is not being paid extortionate amounts at expense of the charity or other employees, but the lack of a lower limit means that the full pay situation cannot be assessed. For a UK charity, with so much work being done in London, the senior management team did not seem very diverse, which is very important when working internationally. 

As well as Trees for Cities having its own projects, the charity is also involved in other schemes, for example the #Helathiercities campaign for clean air, which its work directly works towards. It is also part of the Tree Cities of the World programme led by the FAO. 120 cities have been recognized, and to achieve recognition the cities must meet 5 core standards: establish responsibility (set up a board of members responsible for the cities’ trees), know what you have (have an inventory of local tree resources), allocate the resources (have a dedicated budget for tree management), and celebrate achievements. The standards seem very wishy-washy with no set numbers being specified, which is evidenced by Halifax, Canada being recognized despite only planting 100 trees over 2 years.