Research Article: Live fast, die young: Accelerated growth, mortality, and turnover in street trees

Date Published: May 8, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Ian A. Smith, Victoria K. Dearborn, Lucy R. Hutyra, Dafeng Hui.


Municipalities are embracing greening initiatives as a key strategy for improving urban sustainability and combatting the environmental impacts of expansive urbanization. Many greening initiatives include goals to increase urban canopy cover through tree planting, however, our understanding of street tree ecosystem dynamics is limited and our understanding of vegetation structure and function based on intact, rural forests does not apply well to urban ecosystems. In this study, we estimate size-specific growth, mortality, and planting rates in trees under municipal control, use a box model to forecast short-term changes in street tree aboveground carbon pools under several planting and management scenarios, and compare our findings to rural, forested systems. We find accelerated rates of carbon cycling in street trees with mean diameter growth rates nearly four times faster in Boston, MA, USA (0.78 ± 0.02 cm yr-1) than in rural forest stands of MA (0.21 ± 0.02 cm yr-1) and mean mortality rates more than double rural forested rates (3.06 ± 0.25% yr-1 in street trees; 1.41 ± 0.04% yr-1 in rural trees). Despite the enhanced growth of urban trees, high mortality losses result in a net loss of street tree carbon storage over time (-0.15 ± 0.09 Mg C ha-1 yr-1). Planting initiatives alone may not be sufficient to maintain or enhance canopy cover and biomass due to the unique demographics of urban ecosystems. Initiatives to aid in the establishment and preservation of tree health are central for increasing street tree canopy cover and maintaining/increasing carbon storage in vegetation. Strategic combinations of planting and maintenance will maximize the viability of greening initiatives as an effective climate mitigation tool.

Partial Text

By 2030, urban land cover could triple its 2000 extent [1], increasing anthropogenic pressure on regional ecosystems and the global climate. Urban vegetation provides ecosystem services that can help mitigate local urbanization impacts through reducing the urban heat island [2], reducing surface runoff [3], and improving mental health [4]. Given current trends in development and the suite of potential services urban forests provide, many city governments have undertaken major tree planting efforts [5]. However, cities have been dramatically understudied by ecologists [6] and there is an urgent need for scientific rigor to be applied to nature-based solutions in cities.

Urban greening efforts often focus on planting to achieve increases in canopy cover, but despite high planting and growth rates in many urban areas of the US, there has been a decrease in urban canopy cover over time [43]. In New York City, 26.2% of street trees died within 9 years of planting [44] and an analysis of 11 previous studies from across the globe suggests that the typical street tree population half-life (the time at which cumulative survivorship is 50%) is only 13–20 years [45]. In Milwaukee, WI and Denver, CO, more than 28,000 trees were lost in 5 years with more stems lost in older neighborhoods with higher canopy cover [46]. In some cases, high planting rates have led to net increases in street tree population [15], however, this pattern does not necessarily mean that cities are succeeding in increasing biomass or canopy cover. Removal of large trees for (re)development [47] is often justified by replanting several seedlings in its place [48], but high mortality rates and the time required for a seedling to reach full stature can result in a sustained canopy decline for many years.