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Urban Forest---increasing or decreasing?

I have become increasingly concerned about the urban forest. One study last year indicated that in 17 of 20 municipal areas in the U.S. the percentage of canopy has decreased between 2005-2009. Most homeowners I talk to are aware that we need to plant trees but they are not as informed about the importance of protecting our mature trees. Many municipalities allow the removal of healthy mature trees for what I consider no good reason. Even some people who are professional arborists don't seem to think preserving our matures trees is an issue.

What do you think? Is the urban canopy where you live increasing or decreasing? Can you tell us where you live? Do you have any data to back up what you think?

The idea here is to start a discussion. I have talked to a lot of arborists and homeowners in Chicagoland. Some of them have concerns similar to mine, some of them don't. Some people are as passionate about trees as me, to some it is just a business. What about you?

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  • In the City of Decatur, GA, a 4.2 square community in Atlanta, our canopy coverage has been reduced from 50.2% to 45% in the last twenty years.  The City recently finished phase I of our Urban Forestry Management Plan that includes a replanting plan to retain 45%.  It was calculated that we need to plant 150 tree above replacement per year to maintain the 45% canopy coverage.  The key here is above replacement which I speculate to be an additional 150 trees per year.  Moreover, the trees being replaced are very large canopy trees as our canopy mostly originates from 1920-1950 period.  Our struggle is to find the place to put the trees as backyards are being replaced with larger homes and accessory buildings.  We are considering a Neighborwoods program to plant more trees on private property since probably close to 90% of the land in our city is private.  

  • Hi Misty,

    In the case of Washington DC (and I believe this will hold true for other communities) it shows the challenges of tree planting initiatives keeping pace with development.  As we all know trees take a long time to grow and contribute to a community's tree canopy, but its relatively easy to remove a substantial amount of tree canopy in a short amount of time.  My conclusion is that tree canopy preservation initiatives, particularly for medium and large patches, may be more important than tree planting initiatives when it comes to preserving aggregate tree canopy.  Washington DC has wonderful government and non-profit groups planting trees, but in the short term their efforts have been overshadowed by the removal of trees due to new development, etc.  The type of detailed mapping that was done for DC can help to not only determine the amount of change, but the drivers of that change.


    Misty Beyer said:

    Dear Jarlath,

    Do you think if we had an accurate way of assessing the impact of this 2% decline - it would start to make sense. We have been trying to import our tree survey data into itree - it all sounds like a good idea - but it's not easy. What does this 2% decline mean in your community?

    Has your community established a replanting program? 

    Misty Beyer



  • Dear Jarlath,

    Do you think if we had an accurate way of assessing the impact of this 2% decline - it would start to make sense. We have been trying to import our tree survey data into itree - it all sounds like a good idea - but it's not easy. What does this 2% decline mean in your community?

    Has your community established a replanting program? 

    Misty Beyer



    Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne said:

    US Forest Service research shows that tree canopy is indeed on the decline is most urban areas.  The graphic below shows the detailed tree canopy change analysis we did for Washington DC.  We found that tree canopy decline by roughly 2% in a 5-year period.  DC did not experience the recession due to government spending and thus new developments had a rather substantial impact on tree canopy in the district.

    1080123621.png?width=721

  • US Forest Service research shows that tree canopy is indeed on the decline is most urban areas.  The graphic below shows the detailed tree canopy change analysis we did for Washington DC.  We found that tree canopy decline by roughly 2% in a 5-year period.  DC did not experience the recession due to government spending and thus new developments had a rather substantial impact on tree canopy in the district.

    1080123622.png?width=721

  • Misty,

    I have to be honest and tell you it is sad to hear another story of declining urban canopy. As I have written before, I became concerned about this situation because I am a commercial certified arborist in Chicagoland. I constantly see cities and suburbs allowing the removal of mature trees for what I consider no good reason. We are already losing trees to Emerald Ash borer and other disease and insect problems. Having them removed to build more shopping, or banks or to have a view of the lake is very discouraging.

    What brought things to a head here is the recent list of the 10 cities with the best urban forests that was put out by American Forests. Chicago was not on that list. I love the Chicago area and I consider one of the greenest metropolitan areas in the country. With our park system and forest preserves it is hard to go a few miles without finding a areas with trees. People here were not happy we did not make the list. If you look at the parameters that American Forests used, the omission is understandable. I was on a local radio show to talk about this but I believe the topic was largely ignored.

    All this is very depressing but we must go on. Dave is absolutely right when he talks about education being the key. People have a lot of things to occupy themselves nowadays and most of these activities involve being inside on their butts. It is up to those of us who are passionate about trees and how important they are to human life and all life on planet Earth to educate the rest of the world. Every day when you have the opportunity, talk to someone about trees. It is easier for me because I go out to homeowners property when they call about some tree problem. No matter who you are though, if your passion comes through, people will listen. I find children and younger adult the most receptive but I talk trees to every age group.

    One thing I did in after the American Forests story came out is I contacted people in some of the cities in the top ten. I found the city of Portland, Oregon very helpful. They sent me a lot of information about what they do to get people to appreciate trees. They had problems with decreasing urban canopy in their past but they have overcome them.

    I have an organization called Tree Guardians(http://treeguardians.org/) where you can find a lot of information about the benefits of trees. I also have a Facebook page of the same name. I encourage children and adults to write poems, songs and stories about trees. Dave Coulter does some fantastic writing about trees and nature in general on his blog(http://www.osagegroup.blogspot.com/) and elsewhere. American Grove has a lot of thoughtful, caring people who are a great resource.

    It is not an easy mission, this spreading of the love and lore of trees. But I believe it is worthwhile and is indeed something that has to be done. We have to do it for the good of mankind.

    I have a couple sayings that I find apropos. One is,

    "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead

    "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” - Edmund Burke

    "It ain't easy being green". Kermit the Frog

    And if anyone ever gives you a hard time about being a "treehugger" throw this at them,

    To be an advocate for protection and maintenance of trees is to be an advocate for human life. The two are so intertwined there is no separating them. Healthy trees equal healthy humans. Thinking that if someone is a “tree-hugger” they don’t care about humans has no basis in fact. If you care about human (and other life on this planet) you should also care about trees. Conversely, if you don’t care about trees, what does that say about how you feel about humans?

     

  • I live in Fairfield County, CT.

    Our urban forest is in remarkable decline. The stress and strains of open spaces left unattended have created a garden party for invasive shrubs, vine and trees.  The deer population has increased significantly as well and unfortunately it is not the invasive plants the deer select.

    There is a shift in attitude as well. Green grassy cement (some calling it a lawn) has taken over once wooded lots. Any trees are pushed to the edge of these ball fields - and then forgotten. The battle for survival begins and the oriental bittersweet is definitely winning over many open spaces.

    One cannot talk about trees in our area without discussing power outages. Trees have gotten a nasty reputation for pulling down the utility wires. The neglected trees in the open spaces have been so stressed by vine growth and the influx of invasive trees - what are we thinking. Of course these trees will come down.Our towns do not have a management plan for forested open spaces, and volunteers are hard to come by.  It's breaks your heart to drive by so many open spaces that look so neglected.

    The street side trees do not seem to like the new salt mixtures that desiccates their root system. Our 75+ year old maples are being removed right and left, and our ash tree population has been reduced significantly. Over the past two years it has been speculated that over 2,500 road side and private trees have been removed. Our town has a planting program, this year and last year we replanted only 250 trees. People are not focused on the benefits of this important resource.

    CT is actually like a mini rain forest. Trees like it here - it's a beautiful diverse forest and when there is a little bit of care taken to trim back the bittersweet and other invasives, the forest thrives. I think we are facing an attitude shift here. People are spending more time indoors and when they go outside, it's not the leaves they want to rake or the trees they want to prune. How do we make our communities more aware of the  importance of trees in our lives - and how they affect the air, weather, soil stability.... It will be interesting to hear from others around the country. In our community the trees are stressed, street trees are taking a beating and the asphalt is getting hotter, the hills eroding faster and the air just doesn't seem as clear.

    M Beyer

    Fairfield CT.

  • Jarlath, I totally understand about some urban areas having more canopy than rural residential and agricultural parcels. In one northern county, McHenry in Illinois, they are more worried about loss of canopy due to agricultural expansion than development. With the price and demand for corn(think ethanol) going up, areas are more likely to be turned into farm fields than urban sprawl, at least in McHenry County.

     Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne said:

    Hi Chris - you may be interested to know that Washington DC's tree canopy goal was in response to an EPA consent decree related to water quality.  Bottom line is that for cities to meet regulations and to be competitive (attract businesses and workers) they will need to increase tree canopy.  Some cities will be quick to adopt a more sustainable approach.  Those that are slow will likely realize their errors as they have to raise more taxes to build more stormwater treatment plants while watching the good companies and talented workforce migrate to greener communities.

    One interesting fact is that development does not always result in less tree canopy.  We have carried out dozens of tree canopy assessments and rural agricultural counties such as Jefferson County, WV have less tree canopy than more urbanized counties such as Montgomery County, MD.  In these cases we found that suburban developments have quite a bit more tree canopy that rural residential and agricultural parcels.  Please don't take this as advocating for development, but a residential urban area that is robustly stocked with trees can achieve a high amount of tree canopy.

  • I agree Dave. I have no problem with removing dead, dying or hazardous trees. With all of those and EAB plus the new problems on the horizon we are going to lose a lot of trees. My main concern is removing trees for no good reason.

  • Hi Chris - you may be interested to know that Washington DC's tree canopy goal was in response to an EPA consent decree related to water quality.  Bottom line is that for cities to meet regulations and to be competitive (attract businesses and workers) they will need to increase tree canopy.  Some cities will be quick to adopt a more sustainable approach.  Those that are slow will likely realize their errors as they have to raise more taxes to build more stormwater treatment plants while watching the good companies and talented workforce migrate to greener communities.

    One interesting fact is that development does not always result in less tree canopy.  We have carried out dozens of tree canopy assessments and rural agricultural counties such as Jefferson County, WV have less tree canopy than more urbanized counties such as Montgomery County, MD.  In these cases we found that suburban developments have quite a bit more tree canopy that rural residential and agricultural parcels.  Please don't take this as advocating for development, but a residential urban area that is robustly stocked with trees can achieve a high amount of tree canopy.

  • Thanks for posting this study Jarlath. I have accumulated a lot of information through this website and it will take a while to digest it.

    One thing that is disturbing is the pattern of "development" that takes place in town after town. Areas that are heavily forested are clear cut to build more structures and impermeable surfaces.

    Why do we as a society allow a small group of people to take what should be considered a public resource(trees); public in the sense that we all benefit from them no matter who owns the land they are on; and destroy them so that a few can make a lot of money?

    What are the ways we can stop this from happening? Local ordinances are one but most are too weak. Does any town offer tax credits to property owners for maintaining healthy mature trees? Should trees be declared a public resources and managed for the public good? Any other ideas?

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