Reducing Pollution through Urban Greening

By: Dan Burke Perez

In recent years, beautifying urban areas with trees, gardens, and parks has gained popularity as a way to improve the look of an area as well as the health and lives of residents. Urban vegetation serves a number of essential functions, from reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases to providing habitats for other helpful organisms1.

Plants reduce air pollution in two ways. Leaves, bark, and branches catch airborne pollutants, while leaves and the microbes that live on them break down harmful gases in the air2. Many plants reduce pollutants into harmless elements, removing them from the environment2,3. This extraordinary ability makes it possible for city trees to remove 1.2 tons of atmospheric carbon per acre of tree cover every year4! Certain tree species are better for removing carbon and other pollutants from the air than others. From a list5 of ideal species for this purpose several are naturalized in New York, including Norway maple, pine, apple trees, and silver birch.

Plants also provide homes for beneficial fungi and bacteria that improve soil health. Hinsinger et. al6 claim “…[the area of soil directly around a tree’s roots] probably represents the most dynamic habitat on Earth”. The natural ability of plants to form partnerships with so many organisms can be used to clean polluted soils and boost the health of the urban ecosystem. Urban soils are often compacted, low in organic matter, and contaminated with settled air pollutants from centuries of industry, construction, and traffic7. A recent study8 has shown that, when combined with certain beneficial bacteria, black mustard can absorb lead from polluted soils. Similarly, when paired with the fungus F.oxysporum, cotton and corn roots can reduce asbestos toxicity9. In this way, urban green areas can provide us with a productive landscape that beautifies and restores otherwise unused land.

Greening vacant city lots can have major implications for the health of people living nearby. By reducing pollution in the soil, groundwater, and air, communities can utilize green spaces as a long-term investment in public and environmental health.


  1. Simon, et al. “A Gardener’s Influence on Urban Soil Quality.” Frontiersin Environmental Science, Frontiers Web page, 18 Apr. 2018,
  2. Wei, X., Lyu, S., Yu, Y., Wang, Z., Liu, H., Pan, D., & Chen, J. (2017). Phylloremediation of Air Pollutants: Exploiting the Potential of Plant Leaves and Leaf-Associated Microbes. Frontiers in plantscience, 8, 1318. (p.4, figure 1). doi:10.3389/fpls.2017.01318
  3. Sharma, S. and Pathak, H. (2014) Basic Techniques of Phytoremediation. International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research, Volume 5, Issue 4, P. 586. April-2014 584 ISSN 2229-5518
  4. Nowak, David J.; Heisler, Gordon M. 2010. Improving air quality with trees and parks. Research Series Monograph. Ashburn, VA: National Recreation and Parks Association Research Series Monograph. 44 p.
  5. Donovan, G.H., Longley, I., Gatziolis, Douwes, J. “Vegetation diversity protects against childhood asthma: results from a large New Zealand birth cohort.” Nature Plants, 4, no. 6, 2018, pg. 363. Available from: publication/324991608/download [accessed Sep 20 2018].
  6. Hinsinger, P., Bengough, A. G., Vetterlein, D., & Young, I. M. (2009). Rhizosphere: Biophysics, biogeochemistry and ecological relevance. Plant Soil Plant and Soil, 321(1-2), 117-152.
  7. EPA. (2011) Evaluation of Urban Soils: Suitability for Green Infrastructure or Urban Agriculture. Via National Service Center for Environmental Publications. EPA Publication No.905R1103. (P.8)
  8. Yahaghi, Z., Shirvani, M., Nourbakhsh, F., Coba de la Peña, T., Pueyo, J., and Talebi, M. (2017) Isolation and Characterization of Pb-Solubilizing Bacteria and Their Effects on Pb Uptake by Brassica juncea: Implicationsfor Microbe Assisted Phytoremediation. J. Microbiol. Biotechnol. (2018), 28(7), p.1160.
  9. Martino, E., Prandi, L., Fenoglio, I., Bonfante, P., Perotto, S., & Fubini, B. (2003). Soil Fungal Hyphae Bind and Attack Asbestos Fibers. Retrieved October 12, 2018, from

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