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Boston College Environmental Studies Program Director Eric Strauss (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Stimulating the Economy, Aiding the Environment

Strauss says stimulus spending should have “green” component Bookmark and Share

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff
There are few things more “shovel-ready” than a tree or shrub in need of planting.

As cities and towns across the country receive nearly $1 trillion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Environmental Studies Director Research Assoc. Prof. Eric Strauss (Biology) says economic stimulus spending can create jobs that aid the environment and pay economic dividends we often take for granted.

“Our ecosystems provide us with many services we tend not to think about – flood control, recreation, cleaner air, raw materials, clean water,” says Strauss, the science advisor and founding science director of the BC-based Urban Ecology Institute.

“We don’t think about these things until they go wrong. As we deal with a degraded climate, habitat fragmentation and expanded urban footprints, nature will do many of these services for us if we just restore the ecosystems in our most densely populated areas.”
Strauss, who recently co-authored a article on the topic with Hofstra University’s Lawrence C. Levy, says that while the stimulus program has targeted America’s primary economic engines, a critical part of the strategy should include the nation’s ecological infrastructure.

While highway and building projects generate jobs and the benefits that follow, planting trees and shrubs can produce long-term benefits and potentially save money that may ultimately be required for major “hard capital” anti-pollution projects.

“Not to downplay traditional projects, but if we’re talking about ways to spend money quickly, then building bridges makes sense,” he says. “If we’re talking about transforming society and moving toward sustainable behavior, then investing in that ecological infrastructure has the highest payoff in the long term.”

More than $800 million has been allocated for road, bridge and transit work in Massachusetts. Down the line, Strauss says policy makers need to consider a range of labor-intensive environmental projects.

In addition to employing a broad spectrum of workers — from high schoolers to landscapers to research scientists — green stimulus projects that plant trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers in strategic ways will not only have an environmental benefit but produce a return through increased real estate values and a corresponding increase in tax receipts.

There are other benefits, according to Strauss. Studies have shown greener urban and suburban landscapes boost the morale of residents and commuters, clean the air and water and also reduce crime.

Local candidates for green stimulus projects include Boston’s massive tree inventory and planting program known as the Grow Boston Greener Initiative. The institute is a critical partner in the plan to plant 100,000 new trees in Boston neighborhoods by 2020, which would increase tree cover to 35 percent across the city.

Strauss says costs per tree can be dramatically reduced when neighborhoods are engaged in the process of selecting, planting and caring for the trees.

“The top-down model, people aren’t invested in that. If communities are engaged, and this is great work Boston College does, then the trees and shrubs are perceived as much greater benefits. It’s no longer just the city coming in and planting trees.”

For more information about the Urban Ecology Institute, visit

Ed Hayward can be reached at