Can Autonomous Vehicles Increase our Urban Canopy Cover?
A recent study published in Ecological Modelling concluded that planting 20 percent more trees in our megacities would double the benefits of urban forests. Global warming is becoming increasingly severe and the effects of changing weather are now felt across the globe. Urban forests not only positively affect people’s individual mental health and wellness, but they can reduce climate change impacts as well. Decreased pollution, carbon sequestration, storm water uptake, and energy reduction are just a few of the positive ways in which urban forests positively contribute to climate change adaptation.
Urban areas, by nature, are densely populated with buildings, paved transit networks, and parking areas. As urban density rises along with property taxes that drive development, the space between buildings is becoming both scarce and costly. This leaves little room for urban forests. Understandably, part of the problem lies in that an increasing population requires more housing and services. But the more deeply rooted issue is connected to profit. The economic gains of buildings are far better understood than the economic benefits of trees.
In 2014, TD Bank released two reports that looked to quantify the value of urban forests in four Canadian cities: Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto. The report explored the economic value of reducing flooding, improving air quality, energy savings, carbon sequestration, and reduced fossil fuel emissions (from lower energy use). Their studies found that urban forests in Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto provide environmental benefits of more than $330 million per year combined.
If both housing and urban canopy are necessary for sustainable cities, and urban intensification is preferable to urban sprawl, where does the urban forest fit in? Traditionally, we’ve looked towards park lands to accommodate trees, but these spaces provide limited opportunities for growth. The majority of urban park spaces are already established in urban centers.
Autonomous vehicles are set to become an integrated part of our cities and redefine our modes of transportation. Autonomous vehicles are anticipated to drastically alter our street network and provide new opportunities to revitalize spaces dedicated to stagnant vehicles. The adoption of AV’s may reduce the size of parking lots, and potentially the need for parking lots entirely so long as a car share model is adopted. These parking lots present a significant opportunity for cities to increase their urban canopy and positively impact their climate change adaptation.
Though the timeline is unclear, some expect to see AV’s as early as 2019. This is just around the corner, meaning that it is an important time for city planners and policy developers to establish a framework for how this newly freed space could be used. Continued research on the economic and environmental benefits of urban canopies will help strengthen the case for green streets. While it’s easy to get lost in the excitement of technology, a smart city is a green city too.
Christina is a Landscape Architect and Arborist based in Toronto. Christina’s work focuses on the application of her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science to combine strong design sensibilities with an in-depth understanding of ecological systems and plant material. This results in sustainable design solutions that are sensitive to the environment while creating aesthetically pleasing and functional public spaces.
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