Urban tree planting initiatives are being actively promoted as a planning tool to enable urban areas to adapt to and mitigate against climate change, enhance urban sustainability and improve human health and well-being. However, opportunities for creating new areas of green space within cities are often limited and tree planting initiatives may be constrained to kerbside locations. At this scale, the net impact of trees on human health and the local environment is less clear, and generalised approaches for evaluating their impact are not well developed. In this review, we use an urban ecosystems services framework to evaluate the direct, and locally-generated, ecosystems services and disservices provided by street trees. We focus our review on the services of major importance to human health and well-being which include ‘climate regulation’, ‘air quality regulation’ and ‘aesthetics and cultural services’. These are themes that are commonly used to justify new street tree or street tree retention initiatives. We argue that current scientific understanding of the impact of street trees on human health and the urban environment has been limited by predominantly regional-scale reductionist approaches which consider vegetation generally and/or single out individual services or impacts without considering the wider synergistic impacts of street trees on urban ecosystems. This can lead planners and policymakers towards decision making based on single parameter optimisation strategies which may be problematic when a single intervention offers different outcomes and has multiple effects and potential trade-offs in different places. We suggest that a holistic approach is required to evaluate the services and disservices provided by street trees at different scales. We provide information to guide decision makers and planners in their attempts to evaluate the value of vegetation in their local setting. We show that by ensuring that the specific aim of the intervention, the scale of the desired biophysical effect and an awareness of a range of impacts guide the choice of i) tree species, ii) location and iii) density of tree placement, street trees can be an important tool for urban planners and designers in developing resilient and resourceful cities in an era of climatic change. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12940-016-0103-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.