A Reflection on Urban Tree Campaigns

New York. Los Angeles. Miami. Denver.

Around ten years ago now, each of these cities made a commitment to plant one million trees within its boundary. Mayors far and wide grabbed onto this seemingly simple solution to a myriad of health, equity, and environmental issues confronted in their cities: plant more trees. Simple enough, right?

Not so much. Los Angeles, in particular, has struggled with reaching its goal due both to the program’s organizational structure and, quite simply, lack of space. A GIS analysis done by the U.S. Forest Service at the beginning of Million Trees LA (MTLA) determined that, throughout the city, there would really only be room for an additional 1.3 million trees, including space on private property. That’s a pretty slim margin when you’re shooting for 1 million. The MTLA program, initially launched by partner nonprofit organizations, also had to be shifted into the Mayor’s Office due to mismanagement, begging the question: why was MTLA not integrated into multiple city agencies in the first place? Was this intended as a functional initiative or keeping pace with a trend?

MTNYC

New plantings as part of Million Trees NYC (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

That really seems to depend on the city. In New York, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised 1 million trees in a decade as part of PlaNYC and the City managed to meet its target two years ahead of schedule (FastCo article). While 70 percent of these trees were planted in parks or along streets, the additional 30 percent were thanks to private organizations and homeowners. Denver is also on pace to meets its million mark by 2022.

While I undoubtedly see the benefit of these programs, whether or not they reach the million, I can’t stop wondering: when did we have to “sell” the idea of a tree? Perhaps all of this marketing is necessary, but how soon can it be a natural process of reforestation (programmatically speaking) in our urban areas rather than a tree-planting blitz? Have we become so disconnected from natural systems that we have to market a bur oak or a red maple?

Tree-lined street in Vancouver (waterbucket.ca)

Tree-lined street in Vancouver (waterbucket.ca)

I say this knowing that, despite these efforts, many urban areas are witnessing decreases in urban tree canopy. Even Vancouver, the self-proclaimed “greenest city” has seen its tree canopy reduced to 18 percent in 2013 down from 23 percent twenty years before due greatly to development pressures. In a 2008 Washington Post article, the city sidewalk is described as a “conflict zone” for a young tree tormented by pollution, disease, drought, insects, drunk drivers, and, of course, the passing canine. As a result, approximately 30 percent of new plantings in cities don’t last the first year, contributing to the extremely low average lifespan for an urban tree: 7 years.

A dead street tree in Copley Square, Boston (David Ryan/Boston Globe)

A dead street tree in Copley Square, Boston (David Ryan/Boston Globe)

Part of the problem is that many of these seedlings are grown elsewhere, a few states over and certainly not in the harsh urban soils where they’ll end up. Urban Arboreta seeks to address this side of the issue. By allowing seeds to germinate in Philadelphia, the young trees will have a greater likelihood of survival and be “native” in the literal sense (without going into the species origin). In addition, by operating on formerly vacant lots, the program is inherently located in lower-income communities, shown to have substantially thinner tree cover than wealthier neighborhoods.

Check out our recent video of Scott Quitel talking about the Ecology of Philadelphia:

Not to be outdone by New York, Philadelphia has also taken part in the million trees campaign – Plant One Million – in concert with the rest of the Delaware Valley Region. The Pope’s visit in September 2015 marked the halfway mark. TreePhilly – an initiative of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation – plays a vital role in this, connecting Philadelphia residents with trees for both yards and sidewalks.

Recent planting in Philadelphia as part of TreePhilly

Recent planting in Philadelphia as part of TreePhilly

While these urban tree campaigns were started with the best of intentions, it is worth reflecting on how they’ve fared in the last ten years. While many recognize the incredible value and need for a healthy urban forest, is the million mark the best way to go? (I couldn’t help but question the Million Trees Miami campaign, but on closer inspection, realized they proposed mostly salt tolerant species). Perhaps it does make sense from the marketing standpoint, but it should not come absent of the various city agencies (and nonprofits) needed to implement such a target (as demonstrated by the LA example).  Urban Arboreta aims to be an influential resource that can assist with the future health and viability of Philadelphia’s urban forest.