Whereas the beneficial effects of urban vegetation have long been recognized, growing conditions in urban environments, especially for street trees, are typically harsh and limited by low water availability. Supplemental irrigation may be used to preserve aesthetic quality and ability to provide ecosystem services of urban vegetation but requires careful management of available economic and water resources to reduce urban water footprint. To this purpose, decision makers need quantitative tools, requiring few, physically based parameters and accounting for the uncertainties and future scenarios of the hydroclimatic forcing. Focusing on in-row and isolated trees, a minimalist description of street tree water balance is proposed here, including rainfed and irrigated conditions, and explicitly accounting for tree water requirements, growing conditions (in terms of soil properties and extension of bare soil, permeable and impervious pavements surrounding the tree) and rainfall unpredictability. The proposed model allows the quantification of tree cooling capacity, water stress occurrence and irrigation requirements, as a function of soil, plant and climate characteristics, thus providing indications regarding the tree ability to provide ecosystem services and management costs. In particular, an analysis of different planting designs suggests that a balanced design consisting in bare soil and permeable pavement with size equal to the lateral canopy extension is optimal for water conservation, tree cooling capacity and health. The proposed model provides useful indications towards the definition of site-specific guidelines for species selection and planting design, for sustainable urban vegetation. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.