The Social Benefits of Trees – Paul Johnson (POY 23)

The Social Benefits of Trees - Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson helps Texans manage their trees, and he also hosts a podcast about the benefits of trees. Learn more about this surprisingly important field.

Listen to This Episode

Episode Summary

  • Paul coordinates the Urban and Community Forestry program at Texas A&M University.
  • He works with others across Texas to manage trees and educate others about the benefits of trees.
  • He describes research on the social and environmental effects of trees, arguing that neighborhoods with more trees are better educated, healthier, and safer.
  • Paul describes three ways that anyone can improve tree management in their local community: contacting local government, getting involved in tree-based initiatives, and educating ourselves about trees.

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This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

Paul Johnson is a Board-Certified Master Arborist from Austin, Texas who works in the field of urban and community forestry. He’s the coordinator of the Urban and Community Forestry Program at Texas A&M University, where he and others across the state advocate for trees and the benefits they provide. Research shows that trees have all sorts of positive environmental effects, and residents of neighborhoods with more trees are better educated, healthier, and safer. I talked with Paul about how he got into this surprisingly important field and about how trees are key to a higher quality of living for all of us.

I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Paul is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.

This is Episode 23. You can read along if you’d like at

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I heard a lot growing up about how good trees are for us but not much beyond that. The messages were usually passive, so when I’d hear about things like deforestation in South America or about how urban development was wiping out our natural environment, I’d be sad about it but not much else. I didn’t know what to do about it. Like I’ve mentioned before on this podcast, environmental problems can seem too big to solve, and I felt there wasn’t much that someone like me could do to address them. Beyond sending money someplace, no one really told me what to do in a way that stuck.

Now that I’m older, and am not limited quite as much by all-or-nothing approaches to the world’s issues, I’ve learned that there are small things people like you and me can do to affect change. With that in mind, I started looking into people who were working in urban and community forestry not long ago, and I came across Paul. Paul hosts a podcast about trees called Trees Are Key, and it complements the work he does throughout Texas to educate others about trees.

It varies by geography, of course, but studies have shown that humans have a general affinity for green spaces—forests, in particular. It’s tricky to explain why, but our proximity to green spaces can calm our emotions, reduce our stress, and even diminish the physical pain that we feel. Paul will talk more about benefits like these in a bit.

I reached out to Paul for many reasons, and I’m happy I did. He helped me tie together a lot of loose ends I’ve picked up over the years about trees, green spaces, and how we take having those things for granted. Above all, he reinforced my suspicion that we don’t have to give up on big environmental problems, especially at the local level, and that we really should pay more attention to what trees can do for us. He’s taken a unique journey to get to where he is today, too, so I think you’ll enjoy our conversation about it. Here’s Paul Johnson, Urban and Community Forestry Program Coordinator at the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Interview with Paul Johnson

JM: Hi, Paul.

PJ: Hey, Josh. How are you?

JM: I’m great. How are you?

PJ: I’m doing very well.

JM: I was just listening to your podcast. It’s fascinating.

PJ: Well, thank you.

JM: Something that’s interesting to me: I was reading about forest cover in Texas ahead of our interview. I saw that Texas only has seven percent forest cover?

PJ: Oh, no. That’s way under—

JM: Maybe it was timberland. I may be confusing the two terms.

PJ: There’s a lot of different ways to define forests. One of those is through our Forest Inventory and Analysis program. We’ve got lots and lots of traditional forests in east Texas. Once you expand things out a little bit, it’s significantly different than that. By FIA definitions, we are the most forested state in the continental United States.

JM: That is much different than I expected.

PJ: Yeah. A lot of that forested area doesn’t have really tall trees. That’s one where some people disagree over what really counts and what doesn’t. That’s where we’re at. We’ve got a lot of trees, and some of them are traditional in the manner of what we’re looking at producing. There’s the area that I concentrate on, which is our Urban and Community program, which is where we’re looking at the benefits that aren’t your typical products that people are thinking about but more about all of the great things that trees do for us.

JM: The reason I was asking about tree cover is, I was wondering how you got inspired to study trees as much as you do.

PJ: Actually, I’m not even from Texas.

JM: Oh, you’re not? Okay.

PJ: No, I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I thought that I was going to be a physicist or a math major, went to school. Honors Calc III at 8:00 in the morning my first semester of college disabused me of that notion.

After not doing well there, I was looking around. I was one of those smart kids that had a good scholarship and had to get my grades up in order to keep it. I went back to what I knew growing up, which was theater. I started going into the theater program, yet I wasn’t happy. That’s not what I wanted to do with my life.

JM: Theater, you mean?

PJ: Yeah. I grew up doing it, my mom was a director, an actor. I don’t know—it just wasn’t right for me.

I ended up going to see the movie A River Runs Through It with Brad Pitt. During that movie, which is [an] absolutely beautifully shot movie. In the montage where they go from being kids to being young adults to being men, there’s a little mention of forestry. It’s maybe fifteen seconds of the movie, but that spurred me to check into the forestry program at a different school in our state.

I ended up finding out that, if I transferred immediately—this was over Christmas break—I could save a year of school because I would be able to go to summer camp that first year. That year, the summer camp was just outside of Missoula, Montana—the setting for the movie A River Runs Through It.

JM: I am willing to bet that no one else in history has ever gone through that type of experience, that sort of career path that you’ve been on.

PJ: Yeah. Very few of the foresters that I know have a transcript with ballet, stage makeup, costume construction. It’s a unique path. It’s amazing how you end up doing something like urban and community forestry. I’m still working in the field of trees, but it’s really all about people.

JM: Right, right. You’ve mentioned that trees should be used as tools more so than as ornamentation. I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit. What do you mean?

PJ: Certainly. We build detention ponds, we build big sewer systems in order to capture runoff. That’s one of the tools that we use. One of the other tools that we can use are trees. Trees capture some of that rainfall before it ever even hits the ground. It helps some of that rainfall that does hit the ground go down into the ground where we really need it. Everything that’s captured or that infiltrates doesn’t run off into the street. If it doesn’t run off into the street, it can’t run off into the storm sewer system, doesn’t run off into the creek or river, whatever. We get less flooding that way.

Same thing with cleaner air. We have catalytic converters on our car in order to reduce the number of pollutants that escape out of the tailpipe of the car for us to breathe and have to deal with. Trees that are planted near roadways absorb a lot of those. They are one of the tools we can use to have cleaner air to breathe. That’s why trees are tools, not ornaments.

JM: Can you discuss the use of trees in helping to manage local climates?

PJ: Absolutely. We call towns heat islands. If you were to fly over with a thermometer at the same level, the area outside of town is going to be cooler than the equivalent area inside of town. I’ve seen research to show as much as maybe eight to ten degrees warmer inside of town.

A lot of that is because of our hardscape: our buildings, our roadways. All of these items gather that solar energy; they collect it and turn it into heat. Well, they hold onto it—a lot of it, at least—until the sun goes away, then they continue to radiate it out overnight. Not only is it just warmer during the day, but it also stays warmer all night long. The warmer it is, the more we have to run our air conditioners. The more we have to run our air conditioners, the higher our electric bills are, the more money we’re paying out of pocket because we don’t have enough trees.

JM: That makes a lot of sense. I never thought of it that way.

PJ: That’s why I do what I do. I do a lot of different things, but it’s all in this vein of trying to help people see what we’ve got. I’ve heard it referred to as the invisible forest.

People don’t tend to think that they live in a forest. When I introduce myself and say I’m an urban forester, sometimes people are confused; if not confused, they are even sometimes suspicious because “urban” and “forest” sounds like an oxymoron to a lot of people.

What is a forest?

JM: Uh, hmm. I don’t know if I can define it right off. I think of trees, woods, and such.

PJ: The first thing you think of is a group of trees, then you start looking around. If you have a group of trees, then maybe you have the soil. You might have a stream or some water. Maybe there’s some owls or different birds, the insects. All of that together is what makes up a forest.

JM: I follow you. Okay.

PJ: An urban forest is a collection of trees, roadways, buildings, animals, bugs, crud, all of that, including us. We are an integral part of the urban forest.

Whereas trees do a lot of great things for us, we don’t necessarily always do a lot of great things for trees. If you change the oil on your car, pour that oil out onto the ground, and there’s a tree anywhere in that area, it’s likely to take up some of that oil and get sick, if not die. If you want to park in the shade and there’s not a driveway or something there, and you pull your vehicle over onto the soil, you compact that soil and the tree gets hurt by that. Every time that we nail something into a tree, if you don’t do it right, just hanging a swing on a tree may have a negative impact on that tree.

We work on trying to help people see the value of the trees and then decide what they can do to not only not hurt them, but also to help them even further.

JM: How did we get to the point as a society where we are so neglectful of our forest environment? The way you phrase it, instead of focusing just on the trees, there’s this whole habitat that we have to consider. I’m wondering if you have any insight into what happened to make us so hyper-focused on essentially what’s in front of us in our constructed, built environment rather than our natural environment around us.

PJ: Sure. I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that trees almost seem invulnerable. They don’t tend to respond quickly. We just [went] through some flooding, we also went through drought. The last ten years in Texas have been tough; yet, the trees don’t turn brown immediately. Because of that, we don’t think of them as being sensitive.

I think we have to remember that it is a system. We’re all working in conjunction with one another. It wouldn’t be good to have 100 percent tree cover and not have any buildings for us to live in. It’s also not good to have 100 percent of buildings and roadways without any trees. For us, it’s a matter of trying to figure out what is that great balance between the natural and the manmade.

Back in the Seventies when you got The Lorax, and Rachel Carson [in] Silent Spring, for a long time, people have known that trees are important, yet we’re still struggling to get people to understand that. I have a theory on why: it’s because, for the most part, tree people go into the business of trees.

We’ve always done just enough to keep things going, whereas you have other industries like lawn care that are next to what we do, except there’s a high profit margin in lawn care. Therefore, there’s lots of money for advertising. In the spring, as people are waking up from the winter, they’re going outside, they’re spending more time outside; before that, they were listening to the ads from this weed control company or from that fertilization company: “Here’s what you have to do to have that beautiful, well-cared-for, weed-free, green lawn.”

JM: That never occurred to me before. Huh.

PJ: Yeah. You don’t get the same sales on the importance of trees and “Here’s what you have to for trees.” It also, I think, goes back sociologically: if you think about it, people had to have wealth in order to have large lawns. Back before mechanization, it took a lot of time and effort to have that big, grassy lawn.

JM: Yeah, it was a status symbol.

PJ: Yeah! It was a status symbol. It’s a sign of affluence. That has taken a hold in our society. People still get a lot of good will from others and particularly internally from that idea, “Oh, wow. I’ve got that big, beautiful lawn out there.”

JM: It goes back to your point. Now it’s full circle, at least in my mind, where you bring up that we should be treating trees as tools instead of as decoration.

PJ: You could treat them as tools. Think of them as assets. Assets are something that, not only do you have, but they also pay back. If you have a good budget, you know how much money you have coming in, you know how much you have going out, and you’re taking care of everything, you’re probably going to get a little bit better each year. On the other hand, if you’re living hand-to-mouth, you don’t know what’s coming in, you don’t pay attention to it, you may be getting in a worse place each year financially. It’s the same with our trees.

If we don’t know what we have, we can manage them—lots of communities do it all the time—but you can’t manage them efficiently and effectively. That’s one of the things we push for people to do: do an inventory, do a tree canopy assessment. You have an idea of what your resources are so you can take care of them.

JM: What are some ways you’ve been successful as an arborist? Where do you feel you’ve done a good job of presenting ideas like these?

PJ: My biggest problem is trying to focus in on just one or two. I think the planting of a single tree can change the world.

JM: How so?

PJ: If you go into a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of trees, you go into a neighborhood park where there is a park that overlooks the ballpark, you plant a tree on the west side of that bench. As it grows, it gets a little bit bigger, it cast a little bit more shade.

You’ll find that the people will cluster right underneath that tree in that shade during those hot, hot sunny days. That has changed the world for those people. Not only that, but it’s helping keep the air cleaner. It’s keeping the environment cooler, it’s doing all of the other things that trees do for us.

Every single tree that I’ve planted, that has survived, I’m proud of. On the other hand, there are other things that are more systematic. One that I’m proud of is, a number of years ago, I was the Regional Urban Forester with the Forest Service out of San Antonio. It was during the 2008-2009 slowdown, the Recession. One of the departments in the city went out and got a grant in order to plant trees for energy savings. Nobody in that department knew anything about trees, had no idea how they were going to do that. They went out and got the money, came back, contacted the city arborist, the city forester, myself, and said, “Okay. We’ve got this money, now what are we going to do with it?”

We went through a lot of different things. We do a lot of what we call tree adoptions. Other places call them giveaways. People will line up for hours ahead of time to get a free tree, particularly if it’s a fruit or nut tree. We changed the terminology from a tree giveaway to a tree adoption because a tree is a living, growing entity. They didn’t want to do just another tree adoption because we already did some of those. [They] wanted to focus in because the grant was for energy savings, [so we] partnered with the municipal utility.

We were able to take this funding as the seed money for a program. It’s called Green Shade, and it’s a tree rebate program. We were able to bring in the growers and the sellers to help us promote this program. This tree rebate is still ongoing, even though the federal funds ran out several years ago. We’ve now had thousands upon thousands of trees that are planted because of this program. With us being involved, it turned it into something that’s still paying off today and will continue to.

The whole idea was planting these trees will reduce the amount of electricity that we need each year as they grow. By needing less electricity, you may not have to build a new electrical plant. That’s where you get a lot of bang for your buck by investing in trees.

JM: I love that you put it in that context. I guess I understand that [trees] play a role eventually in our energy cycle. To that extent, when you link it to the energy that we consume, I never put those things together. That gives it a whole new context.

PJ: Yes. It’s an exciting time because we are getting more and more research, more and more information every year about the amazing things trees do that benefit us.

We’ve got research that shows a connection between trees and people. It doesn’t matter almost what your topic of interest is. Maybe you have kids, and you want those kids to do well in school. We’ve got research that shows, kids that can see trees from their classroom or their cafeteria do better in school. They are more likely to go to school, they have higher standardized test scores, and are more likely to go to college.

A lot of people will have that conversation of, “Oh, well. Is that causation or correlation?” The difference being, if it’s causation, the trees are causing the kids to do better in school; correlation, maybe we have more trees around schools that are better invested in.

JM: Yeah, I was going to say that.

PJ: It doesn’t matter if it’s causation or correlation if they’re connected.

JM: Yeah. Correlation and causation aside, overall it can be interpreted as an expression of care to have trees around. That could be the factor right there.

PJ: It could be. Another interesting research study has to do with domestic violence. We’ve got lots of research studies that show areas with lots of trees tend to have less crime. They have less violent crime, less vandalism, those kinds of things.

There was one study that looked at domestic violence rates in the same public housing unit. Two sides had windows that looked out over greenspace. The other two sides of the building looked out over the typical urban jungle of no trees, lots of buildings, those kinds of things. Trying to take everything else into account, the domestic violence rates were lower in those apartments that could see trees through the windows.

JM: Fascinating.

PJ: It really is. Then you get into health. There’s a little critter up in the Midwest and Northeast. You may have heard about it: emerald ash borer. Emerald ash borer was an insect that hitch-hiked its way across from Asia in packing material, either in a boat or a plane, who knows. [It] first showed up outside of Detroit, and since then has marched across the country, killing virtually all of the ash trees in its way.

There’s an economist with the US Forest Service, Geoffrey Donovan, who’s gone in and done several studies being able to look at health information before and after this critter was in that area. As the critter marches through, it kills the ash trees, reduces the amount of canopy. You have a lower percentage of that community covered with trees than they were beforehand. In those areas that have lost trees, infant birth weights have gone down. Cardiovascular disease has gone up in those areas that have lost trees.

There is a huge connection between trees and public health, trees and education, trees and public safety. If there is a better argument for doing more for our trees, for doing better for our trees, I haven’t been able to come up with it.

JM: Wow. It’s just so—what’s the word I’m looking for? I don’t want to say bewildering, but I’m just amazed that there are all of these things about our natural environment, including trees, that affect us that we have no idea of, either because we don’t realize them yet or because we take them for granted.

PJ: Absolutely. It’s worth the investment to remind people of, to educate people about, and to help us do a better job of thinking about our trees as we’re making decisions. Often for our communities, it comes down to, “Okay. Are we going to have an urban forester, or are we going to have another police officer?” If you don’t understand that trees are more than just pretty, it’s really easy to make that decision of, “Well, we need another police officer.”

As great as trees are, eventually they fall down. That means there is risk involved with trees, as well as them being great. If you have a professional that can help you reduce the risk of having trees in your community, that’s also public safety. We have to do a good job of making sure that trees are included in the conversation on almost anything that we’re talking about.

JM: That is so profound. I’ve never heard this before.

PJ: That’s why I do what I do. So many people haven’t heard it before. If you can’t tell, that’s what I’m preaching.

JM: [laughs]

You know, trees aren’t a universal fixture in all climates. I was thinking, even in western Texas, there might be some areas that are arid and don’t support trees. How would the work you do translate over to that sort of environment, or even in urban environments where there’s not easy access to trees. How does your work apply to that?

PJ: I think that’s where our work is the most vital. As people marched across the country, the rainfalls dropped precipitously. Yet, even in the Great Plains, where there was water, there were trees. Because people and trees are so intrinsically linked, when people start to build a community, they start planting trees also.

You just have to make a good selection on what kind of tree you’re going to grow. You don’t want to take a tree that requires lots and lots of water and put it out into west Texas, where we don’t have lots of water. That’s really the key to it, is species selection, making sure we’ve got the right tree in the right place.

JM: That’s part of the management process. That makes sense.

If I wanted to start improving tree maintenance in my own community, what would be some of the first steps you would recommend?

PJ: Three things that I recommend. First off, contact your community leaders. I talk about this in the first podcast of this year, “Key Resolutions for Trees.” Call, write, email, tweet, whatever. Go to the city council meeting, take your two minutes of public time, and let them know that trees are important to you. Find out if there’s a city forester, find out if there’s a city arborist, find out if there’s a tree board. Get involved, thank those people that are taking care of trees, and make sure that the people that write the checks know that you as a citizen of that community value trees.

Next step: get involved. If there is a local tree board, volunteer to serve on the tree board. If they have a committee, if there’s an Arbor Day celebration, help them with that celebration. Find out if there’s a local tree nonprofit. In places like Philadelphia, Tree Philly. Great organizations that are concentrating on helping increase the tree canopy in our communities. You can invest money or time into these organizations. They can always use both, and both is probably better than one or the other.

At the same time, I think the third and just as important, if not more so than the first two, is educate yourself. Find out more about trees, about why trees are important, how to care for them. If you know a little bit about how a tree grows, and you see somebody do something dumb to a tree, you can explain why taking that string trimmer and beating up the trunk of the tree all the way around the base of the tree isn’t good for the tree.

The more people know about something, the more affinity they have for, the more understanding and the more likely they are to say, “This is important to us.”

JM: Is there a website or other resources you would recommend if people wanted, for example, to build their case before they went to a city council meeting, or even if they wanted to educate themselves, like you’re referring to?

PJ: Sure. I have and am continuing to try to put everything that I’ve gleaned from the last 20-25 years into these little ten minute podcasts each week.

Beyond the Trees Are Key podcast, you’re looking at [It] is a great site. It’s from the International Society of Arboriculture. Your local master gardeners, master naturalists, garden club, your state forestry program. Here in Texas, we’ve got a great program, but all of the states across the US have urban and community forestry programs. The nonprofits, the NGOs.

[There’s] lots of great information out there, almost too much. Look for information that’s not just from any yahoo. If you go to YouTube and search “how to prune a tree,” and then you look at those that are the most popular, there’s not a good resource in the top ten most popular “how to prune a tree” videos. We are now, as an industry, trying to focus in. One of the challenges is you’ve got so many different organizations, you’ve got so many different territories and everything.

JM: It’s a lot of noise.

PJ: Yeah. There is a lot of noise, and it’s hard to glean what’s the best. If you need to hire a professional, look for a certified arborist. If you’re working in your community, you want to encourage better care in the parks, and you find out that nobody in that community is a certified arborist, find out some way to help encourage them to do that. Just share.

JM: Going back to your work, what would be the best way to follow you online?

PJ: [On] both Instagram and Twitter, my handle is treevangelist. We’ve got the Trees Are Key podcast. It’s hosted through Soundcloud, but you can find it on Stitcher, iTunes, TuneIn, however people access their podcasts. I’ve tried to make it timely from a calendar standpoint, so when the leaves are changing in the fall, make sure that fall leaves are key, those kinds of things to keep it interesting.

It’s just fascinating and fun, and I appreciate you reaching out and being interested.

JM: Yeah, glad to do it. What’s interesting to me, too, and another reason I reached out is there is this whole community of arborists that, I guess, don’t get a lot of attention unless people are specifically looking for your type of work. There’s this whole world of work that you do that’s interesting, and I think more people should be aware of [it].

PJ: Well, thank you. We appreciate that. It really is: trees are key to healthier and happier communities. We really help take care of the people that take care of the trees.

JM: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?

PJ: No, I think that we’ve covered it well.

JM: I was wondering: how does a person become an arborist?

PJ: Okay. There’s a number of routes. Anybody that works on trees can consider themself an arborist. It’s when you want to become a certified arborist that you start having to do certain things a certain way. ISA, International Society of Arboriculture, is the certifying body for arborists worldwide.

To become a certified arborist, you have to qualify to sit for the exam. That qualification comes as a combination of education and experience. Once you qualify to sit for the exam, the exam itself is an over-200 question, multiple-choice test. Then we have things like qualifications.

It’s a great field. It’s not one of those fields that’s likely to be automated, so it’s something that should be fairly future-proof.

JM: Well, this has been fascinating. I’m so glad you made time to talk with me because I would have never had any idea about most of this stuff.

PJ: Absolutely. Happy to.

JM: Thanks, Paul. I appreciate it.

PJ: You bet.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

What did you think? What’s the situation for trees like in your area? How often do you notice the forests around you? Let me know on Facebook or Twitter at pluralofyou, or contact me via the website at

The Plural of You is produced by me, Josh Morgan, in snowy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.

You can find show notes, past episodes, and other resources on the website, and if you’d like to have the next episode sent to you automatically, visit to subscribe to the podcast.

If you liked my talk with Paul, check out Episode 7 with Drew Carhart. Drew is an amateur astronomer who’s successfully raised light pollution awareness in the Chicago area for over 40 years. You can find my talk with him at

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

Turn off your gadgets, including the one you’re on now, and go outside. I’ll confess that I don’t do this one enough, either, but now we know a few reasons why it’s important. Walk in your neighborhood, visit a local park this weekend, take a road trip to a waterfall, go hiking, anything involving our natural environment. Public spaces don’t have to be places that we just pass through. They can be calming, energizing, and therapeutic to spend time in. It’s like Paul said: the more we know about something, the more affinity we’ll have for it.

That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.