(Japanese Cherry Trees like this one decorate many a front yard and the National Mall in Washington, DC)

Who would not want a tree in their yard? They are pretty to look at, offer shade when leafed out, and provide homes for birds, squirrels, and other urban animals. If you are so inclined, you can climb them. If not, you can sit under them. Or frankly, you can just leave them alone. They don’t need you.

And that is really one of the things we find appealing about planting trees as a strategy for reusing vacant lots and land.

Reuse in this context means taking land once used for one thing and using it for something else, often a different use. Imagine a parcel that had a house. The house became dilapidated and had to be torn down. Now it is now a vacant lot. Given the cost of construction, sales prices, and market demand, no one will build a new house on that lot. Many cities and towns have vacant lots like this and it’s a major challenge. So how can trees help?  

Trees are a passive form of reuse, as compared to a lawn that needs to be cut every couple of weeks, a community garden that can be even more labor-intensive, or building permanent infrastructure, like a new pocket park. Certainly, the returns you can get from a garden or park are different from a stand of trees, but the tradeoffs are just that – they are tradeoffs. Many of the cities and towns faced with these lots are faced with other sets of constrained choices.

Consider community gardens, which are often promoted for reuse of vacant lots. A garden is labor-intensive, requires extensive planning and in some cases, security and monitoring to get it going and keep it going. Those are the negatives. A garden is often a great vehicle for community planning and empowerment. They become sources of community pride and neighborhood anchors. If programmed, they offer a place to teach and learn about plants and planting, food nutrition, and much more. These positive returns are well worth the investment on the front end.

A lot planted with trees offer similar types of positive returns. For some reason, maybe because trees grow more slowly or require less human interaction, we don’t hear nearly as often about planting an urban forest. A lot planted with a tree or several trees strategically placed require offer wonderful benefits.

Their shade offers a place to hold small community meetings and gatherings. If they are smaller trees, kids can climb in them and play around them. Several lots in a neighborhood planted with trees can be used for community education or walks, hosting placemaking opportunities, or other community-building activities. Trees also clean the air of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, help clean and anchor the soil, absorb water that might otherwise flood other properties, and supply shade that keeps homes cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Last, compare a lot with a tree to a vacant land with grass. Someone needs to cut the grass every couple of weeks or it can become overgrown. If a lot is not fenced, people might park or abandon cars on it. Frankly, vacant lots seem to attract trash and debris, as a magnet attracts iron shavings. And frankly, no matter what you do, it will just look like a vacant lot. A vacant lot is cheap on the front end, but not without real costs.

So, let’s hear it for the humble tree. Put away your lawnmowers and get out your shovels, folks.

(National Arbor Day is the last Friday each year. This year, it falls on April 30. To learn more and to order trees to plant, visit the Arbor Day Foundation website).