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Paying People To Plant Trees

A Chicago group is fighting storm water pollution and heat islands by offering rebates to people who buy trees or rain barrels.

Chicago has a great new program to help residents join the city in reducing storm water pollution cleaning the air, cooling "heat islands," and improving public health. It’s called Sustainable Backyards, and the genius of it is that it’s educational, participatory, and effective at the same time. Basically, the city provides financial assistance in the form of rebates that reimburse citizens for up to 50 percent of the cost of installing trees, native plants, compost bins, and/or rain barrels. There are reasonable limits based on the value of the ecosystem services provided by each product: you can get a rebate for up to $100 for planting a tree, for example, or up to $40 for installing a rain barrel.

As I’ve noted before, the value of a tree can be substantial: the net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is said to be equivalent to ten room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day. They also absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, among many other functions. Plantings and rain barrels can help stave off runoff that occurs when rainfall runs into overburdened sewers and receiving rivers, streams, and lakes, picking up pollutants along the way. Chicago was one of the cities profiled in NRDC’s study of water pollution and green infrastructure solutions, Rooftops to Rivers II. NRDC's water program attorney Larry Levine says that "stopping runoff with green infrastructure on private property is a crucial part in the solving [a] city’s storm water problems and improving the health of our communities."

Photo credit: Amanda O'Rourke/Creative Commons (left); BN Riverkeeper (right)

The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, whose work on transportation and housing costs is seriously impressive, has been selected by the city to manage the Sustainable Backyards program.  In a press release, the Center explains some of the benefits:

The SusBy program was created to alleviate basement and neighborhood flooding and reduce the flow of polluted water into our rivers and Lake Michigan using green infrastructure. Green infrastructure, as opposed to gray infrastructure (such as pipes), uses natural processes in order to infiltrate, evaporate, and/or reuse storm water. Many of the green infrastructure practices encouraged have a multitude of benefits, from providing wildlife habitat to cooling the air and fostering a sense of community.  Educational workshops will continue to be offered to residents who want to learn more about the SusBy program and the basics of making their green spaces more sustainable.

As NRDC’s report documented, Chicago is not the only city addressing these issues, but I do love the accessible-to-everyone simplicity of the Backyards program. 

Another city that is promoting green infrastructure solutions by residents is Seattle. Rain is no small matter in Seattle – its nickname has the word "emerald" for a reason – and, as part of a campaign by Washington State University and the non-profit Stewardship Partners, rain gardens are sprouting up all over the city. The goal is to install 12,000 rain gardens in Puget Sound communities by 2016.

This video is a great introduction to the issue and to the program:

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.