Water availability drives urban tree growth responses to herbivory and warming.
Urban forests provide important ecosystem services to city residents, including pollution removal and carbon storage. Climate change and urbanization pose multiple threats to these services. However, how these threats combine to affect urban trees, and thus how to mitigate their effects, remains largely untested because multi-factorial experiments on mature trees are impractical. We used a unique urban warming experiment paired with a laboratory chamber experiment to determine how three of the most potentially damaging factors associated with global change for urban and rural trees - warming, drought, and insect herbivory - affect growth of Quercus phellos (willow oak), the most commonly planted large shade tree in the southeastern US, which is known for its resilience to these potential stressors. In a previous study, we found that the urban heat island effect was associated with reduced growth of Q. phellos and higher abundance of Parthenolecanium scale insects, key pests of oaks in cities. Here, we tested the hypothesis that tree water stress is the mechanism for these effects of warming. We found evidence that water stress is a major, interactive factor reducing urban tree growth, but found no evidence that water stress is associated with Parthenolecanium survival or abundance. Warming and Parthenolecanium only reduced growth in Q. phellos saplings that were simultaneously water stressed. Synthesis and applications. Across many temperate cities worldwide, urban trees grow less than rural trees. Our results point to water stress as the most likely driver for this pattern. Importantly, we found that water stress both reduces tree growth on its own and exacerbates effects of warming and insect pests on tree growth. Therefore, management strategies targeted at increasing tree hydration in cities may reduce effects of these three key stressors that are expected to intensify with further urbanization and climate change.