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By Joe Anderson, Utility Forester, JEA

*Editorial Note: The following article appeared in the the September/October 2021 issue of the UAA Newsline.

Utility: the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial. By definition, trees are a valued utility built into the framework of a city’s working infrastructure. The term “green infrastructure” applies to landscapes and natural systems that complement and enhance the built gray infrastructure of concrete, steel, block, pipes, and wire. The term can be traced back to a 1994 report to Florida Governor Lawton Chiles by the Florida Greenways Commission. Communities, neighborhoods, and urban centers can find the utility of the urban forests useful, profitable, and beneficial from the contributions and solutions they provide, including—but not limited to—air and water filtration, heat island abatement, storm water control, soil stabilization, aesthetics, and enhanced recreational experiences.

Utility foresters and arborist contribute to the safe and reliable utility services of electrical, water, wastewater, and trees. Most notably, they provide solutions to conflicts between trees and overhead electrical lines. In the mind of the utility arborist, the power of any community can be found in the canopy of trees. Regarding the laws of physics, one must consider that electricity will do what it is supposed to do—always. Wood may not be a good conductor of electricity, but the live vascular system of a tree, and/or the burnt carbon path etched into a tree trunk, can be a great conductor. We know that lightning strikes trees, is contained, and travels unseen through overhead electrical lines. It will strike trees if given a chance. With regards to electricity, distance is our friend. Though trees and utility lines share the same right-of-way (ROW) corridors, each has its own personal space—a distance and threshold that is enforced and respected.

The gray and green infrastructure will share the same space because a city and a tree are very much the same; they both start off small—like an acorn for the tree and a small town for the city. Neither the acorn nor the small town are going to be small forever. The acorn and the city need the same things. They need a little sun, water, and space to grow. Both are designed to grow, get big, and build. The tree builds girth to roots, trunks, and stem —building branches, twigs, buds, fruits, and flowers. The city builds infrastructure—building roads, sidewalks, buildings, parking lots, amenities, and utilities. The parts and pieces of trees and cities need to be maintained, and sometimes replaced. Both the tree and the city will need the proper people, positions, policies, and budgets in place to properly build, maintain, and prosper. Take a closer look at the chemical distribution system flowing through a tree. It’s similar to the electrical distribution system that serves the city. Both distribution systems have trunk lines, branches, laterals, switches, transformers, and are both grounded.

A tree will tap into the energy of the sun, convert it to chemical energy, and distribute the energy throughout its trunk, branches, twigs, buds, fruits, flowers, and leaves. There are established vascular pathways used to distribute the chemical energy: the xylem and phloem. If these pathways become blocked or broken, bad things will happen to parts of or the entire tree. In a similar way, a city will tap into a source of electricity and distribute the energy throughout its trunk lines, branches, twigs, buds, fruits, flowers, and leaves. The buds, fruits, flowers, and leaves of the city are the businesses, essential services, public facilities, and residential homes. There are established pathways used to distribute the electrical energy. City ROWs are the xylem and phloem of the city. If the ROWs become blocked or broken, bad things will happen to parts of the city, or perhaps the entire city. Utility arboriculture is a discipline that secures the open pathways for both the gray infrastructure that we build and the green infrastructure that nature provides.

Inside the walls of a city, the individual tree is not alone. It stands as part of a larger narrative of an urban tree canopy, which is useful, profitable, and beneficial. Cities, communities, and neighborhoods need to recognize that we need a sustainable and resilient tree canopy and the benefits it provides. We need oxygen, shade, soil stabilization, wood, pollution control, water infiltration, carbon sinks, inspiration, recreation, and fruits and flowers We need natural pumps that can reach into the capillary space in soils and, through transpiration, pull recycled water from saturated soils up through the trunk, out through the leaves, and back into the air. We need sight buffers, sound barriers, wildlife habitat, natural areas, and tree-related jobs.

If a city is to incorporate the goods and services of trees among the social services and utilities that the city provides, it will need more than trees. It will need a sustainable and resilient forest canopy. This canopy will require a strong and responsive tree industry. A strong and responsive tree industry will include:
Utility arborists

  • Municipal foresters
  • Private tree-care professionals
  • Tree-minded nonprofit organizations
  • Informed civic groups
  • State and federal agencies
  • Landscape architects
  • Engineers
  • Planners
  • Educators
  • Tree advocates, on many levels

We need a strong tree industry that can provide the solutions needed to enhance the benefits of trees and mitigate the risks and hazards. United in our efforts, trees will remain a useful, profitable, and beneficial utility built into the framework of a city’s working infrastructure.

To the utility arborist, I very much appreciate who you are and what you do. Thank you for coming to work today!

Joe Anderson is an ISA Certified Arborist and a member of the Florida Urban Forestry Council and the Utility Arborist Association.