Trees By The Numbers: Does Data Matter?

I read a lot of news about trees in the urban environment. These stories are usually about how important trees are, and frequently cite statistics like the number of tons of carbon storage and sequestration trees provide, the quantity of pollutants they remove, the amount of money they save us, or their contribution to controlling rising temperatures and flooding. I’m very familiar with statistics like these, because I also use them frequently. But are they really effective? Does data like this really matter to people?

If you already believe in the value of a tree, I’m guessing you don’t need to hear statistics about them. Your mind is already made up. And if you’re not yet sold on the value of trees, I’m not convinced that statistics about how much trees do for us substantially improves the stickiness of the argument that we need to change the way we plant them.

Logically, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. It seems like hearing all these facts and figures about how much trees do should have the opposite effect. But then, people don’t make decisions based on logic alone (and in some cases, logic does not factor in at all). Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we’re good at making short-term decisions based on logic, but that we’re weaker when it comes to making good long-term decisions.

Trees do provide an incredible number of environmental and economic benefits. Despite this, it seems that it is often more persuasive to use visuals to communicate their value. Statistics can quickly become tiring and meaningless. Hearing them over and over again eventually dampens their impact. The average person won’t really take in what removing 711,000 metric tons of pollution feels like (that’s a $3.8 billion value, by the way). But we do know how nice it feels to walk on a tree-lined street. Especially in the hot new climate that is no longer an abstract future.

This is one of the conundrums of design. So much thought goes in to all the things we build and create, but in the end, few people know or pay attention to the specific details. What they remember is how it feels to be there.

Of course data does matter. But I’m unconvinced that it’s persuasive as people may believe it is. I’m sure I’ll keep quoting statistics about how great trees are sometimes — the numbers are impressive, after all. But I’m also going to continue to think about how to communicate their value in other ways in order to try to be heard over the dull roar of construction, design, and financial constraints.

Image: Emotive WorkshopBetta Design and Weymouth Street

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