Urban Trees Comic by USGS Vizlab

Urban ecosystems and the trees within them save cities millions of dollars annually by providing shade and intercepting rainfall, improving quality of life and increasing resilience to climate change. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) Vizlab combined hand-drawn illustrations with computer-generated data visualizations to communicate the value of urban trees to humans and the environment.

The comic starts out setting the stage for a sweltering urban landscape, in which a squirrel seeking shade under a tree contemplates how urban trees reduce energy costs and increase infiltration in cities across the U.S. The comic follows the squirrel throughout the day as oppressive sun and heat eventually give way to rain. The squirrel’s story is enhanced with two separate data visualizations. The first chart has a unique composition with 744 magnolia flowers representing 744 cities across the United States. The flowers are scaled to the total energy savings per city, which creates the look of a lush magnolia tree. The second chart shows the costs saved by rainfall interception by urban trees in each state. The dripping raindrops are scaled to the magnitude of savings in each state, creating the feeling of rainfall. The cost savings here are double-encoded, with the size of the raindrop and the distance the raindrop has fallen both representing cost savings.

By embedding data visualizations into a web-comic, we were able to pair the strengths of storytelling and thematic visualization to build an easily approachable and powerful data story.