The story of Melbourne's "tree-mail" shows that trees are more than just an ecosystem

Fitzroy Gardens: just some of the many Melbourne trees you can email, if you so wish. Image: Tirin/Wikimedia Commons.

The internet exploded recently with news that you can email trees in Melbourne. For the last two years, residents and visitors have sent thousands of emails to their favourite tree, particularly one much-loved golden elm.

“I see you every morning, watch you change with the seasons. It makes me happy knowing you are there,” emailed one resident.

At first glance, the idea of emailing a tree can seem a strange and wacky one. But this email is just one of the thousands the City of Melbourne has received via its Urban Forest Visual, which maps every public tree in the City.

The fact that Melburnians have embraced the notion of emailing a tree is no surprise. We have been passionate about trees in cities for a long time. In 1871, a correspondent to Melbourne’s Argus argued that more trees were needed:

The beauty of the city, its coolness, its freedom from ground damp (which the trees would absorb), street currents of air, would all be enhanced; the expense and horrid ugliness of verandahs would be saved, and our taste would be complimented.

Our research explores the how people see and think about nature: sometimes trees and garden plants, but also weeds, “ferals”, and native plants and animals. This research shows consistently that nature is really important to people for many different reasons, and always in ways that differ from experts and professionals.

An extract from Melbourn's Urban Forest Visual, showing details of one London plane tree.

Around the world, many cities have been undertaking massive urban tree expansion and renewal programs. Million Tree initiatives have begun in many cities including Los Angeles, New York and Shanghai. These aim primarily to plant more trees, but also to manage the resilience of the forest by increasing species diversity. They also encourage community participation in choosing locations and kinds of tree, and stewardship by adopting and caring for trees.

The City of Melbourne’s urban forest program is also using cutting-edge research to increase tree canopy cover, manage diversity in the forest, and reduce heat in summer. Yet it is perhaps through new ways of valuing trees, and through community engagement programs such as emailing a tree, that the City of Melbourne is being most innovative.

Why do we value trees?

Trees have always been valued by urban people, but the way they have justified their value has constantly changed.

Some of Melbourne’s most frenzied tree planting occurred during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was based on arguments that valued trees for “beautifying” the city, a concept that included improving human morality and mental health.

In recent decades, the emergence of the Ecosystem Services framework has allowed the benefits provided by trees such as temperature reduction, carbon sequestration and pollution interception to be quantified and valued in dollar terms. This thinking has led to recent initiatives such as the price-tagging of trees.

Yet the price of a tree tells us only a little about how important trees are to people. Recent community engagement work that we have been doing with the City of Melbourne using social psychology methods has identified multiple ways that the public values urban trees: for their contribution to civic identity, as nature, for their cultural heritage, to improve the community, and for their life sustaining properties.

It is clear that all these values need to be well represented in the urban forest to satisfy the community. This work has used a variety of methods such as questionnaires, value mapping, and photo sorts that have proven to be useful in helping the community understand the issues behind the urban forest program, and perhaps more importantly, to involve the community in decision making.

People’s emails to trees could provide some surprising insights into how people relate to trees, rather than just benefit from them. The emotional basis of this relationship is very strong: comments included the likes of, “I very fond of you" [sic], “I miss you”, “It makes me happy knowing you are there”, and “It saddens me that your passing will be sooner than my own”.

Although the framing of trees as “ecosystems services” or “green infrastructure” are undoubtedly useful tools for directing the wheels of urban development, there is real power in understanding people’s emotional relationship with trees. Healthy, liveable and lovable cities need to allow people’s subtle and nuanced spiritual and emotional bond with trees to thrive.

The Conversation Dave Kendal is a researcher and Anna Wilson a research historian at The Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology at University of MelbourneLilian Pearce is PhD Candidate and research assistant at the Australian Research Council for Urban Ecology at Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.