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Commentary: Shovel-ready projects that create jobs

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  • Strauss and Levy say investing in greenery projects will create jobs
  • They say trees save energy, curb pollution and promote better neighborhoods
  • They say using stimulus money for such projects helps economy, environment
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By Lawrence Levy and Eric Strauss
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Lawrence C. Levy is executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and has written widely on political and social change. Eric Strauss is Director of Environmental Studies at Boston College and science advisor for the Urban Ecology Institute.

Lawrence Levy says trees save energy and reduce damage to the environment.

Eric Strauss says investing in urban and suburban greenery creates jobs and enhances housing value.

(CNN) -- Now that the federal stimulus money has started to flow, the nation's governors and local officials shouldn't overlook investments in neighborhood ecosystems that could put thousands of people to work now and improve the health of communities for generations.

Spending billions of dollars on green restoration in urban and suburban downtowns and along highways will create jobs for everyone from high school students to research scientists, from people comfortable swinging a shovel or sitting at a computer.

Friday's bleak unemployment report demonstrated just how vital it is to create jobs in this economic downturn.

Planting trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers in well-planned ways also will increase real estate values and thus municipal tax collections, boost the morale of commuters and residents, clean the air and water and, according to academic research, reduce crime and even decrease healing time after surgery. It's the key to creating more walkable, sustainable urban and suburban spaces.

As a solution to many problems, investing in ecological infrastructure is not only aesthetically elegant and ethically appropriate, but economically efficient. As stimulus goes, there couldn't be anything more "shovel ready."

"Strategically planted urban trees reduce energy use by shading buildings in summer and blocking cold winter winds," reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. "As they grow, trees remove carbon dioxide and other green house gases from the atmosphere and sequester them in their leaves, branches, trunks and roots...... In retail/commercial districts shoppers spend more time and money and come back more often, and give people places to recreate, connect with nature and experience a sense of well being."

Trees and shrubs can save huge sums by reducing or eliminating the need for major "hard capital" anti-pollution projects or can soften the impact on the environment while the capital and technology is found to produce cleaner power plants and vehicles.

For instance, New York City saved at least $6 billion on new water treatment plants by spending $1.5 billion protecting watershed land in the Catskill Mountains. Dramatically limiting development on these lands prevented, among other ecological disasters, the decimation of forests whose roots and leaves retain soil and pollutants, keeping the city's reservoirs clean.

Massive tree planting initiatives, such as Boston's ongoing Grow Boston Greener Initiative, and New York City's new Million Tree Initiative, can accomplish more than improving the look and feel of major metropolitan areas.

Expanding the urban forest canopy can help reduce the carbon footprint and other ecological damage caused by the burning of fossil fuel -- and do so in a very economical way.

Nationwide, two decades of research has documented hundreds of examples of savings through shading, wind-blocking, air cleansing and water conservation.

Individual buildings can see energy cost reductions of 20-25 percent with properly placed trees, as well as an increase in property values and improved morale among occupants.

One researcher reported that planting 100 million mature trees around residences in the U.S. could save about $2 billion annually in reduced energy costs alone -- and that was 20 years ago. More recent research using additional models developed by the USDA Forest Service found that billions could be saved by the planting of 100 million trees in urbanized areas of the American Southwest.

A study of urban forests in Modesto, California, found $1.89 in benefits for each $1 invested in managing the city's greenery. The study said trees eliminated 154 tons of air pollutants while increasing property values and saving more than $1 million by providing shade.

Instead of taking a decade to plant a million trees in New York City, as planned, why not give Mayor Michael Bloomberg the funds to complete this signature initiative of his administration in three or four years and reap the benefits much sooner?

Instead of tolerating desolate downtowns in many poor suburban communities, why not designate dollars to brighten places left out of the suburban dream?

The federal government should encourage states and localities to set aside a portion of funds for building roads and other capital projects and devote them to major regreening efforts and river restorations. .

But these projects must be done carefully, as planting the wrong trees can do more harm than good to ecosystems and erase savings in one sphere by adding costs in another. And they shouldn't be forced on neighborhoods in a one-size-fits-all approach that characterized the mistaken planning of prior generations.

Residents of all ages and status, including school kids, clergy, business owners and neighborhood and political leaders, should be invested in designing -- and outright planting -- their own green renewal.

This approach has proven successful in inner-city Boston, where the Urban Ecology Institute recruited residents, many of them young, who in turn enlisted their elders to back regreenings of their neighborhoods. UEI researchers found the work improved property values, reduced crime and contributed to a cleaner environment. The Institute is working with Hofstra University on a similar project focusing on the urbanized suburbs of Long Island. This is a step toward environmental justice that has proven so elusive in poorer communities.

The nation is at a pivotal moment and not just fiscally. The core of a healthy economy is a healthy human population in a clean and calming natural environment. We need to transition from a focus on consumption to one of restoration. What better place to start than with trees -- millions of them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lawrence Levy and Eric Strauss.

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