In the 1950s, the tree canopy in Northeast Ohio was thriving, providing cool temperatures in the summer, improving air quality by removing pollution from the air, reducing respiratory illnesses, and boosting water quality by reducing stormwater runoff to sewers.
And, of course, the natural beauty that trees offer increases property values.
But in Cuyahoga County and worldwide, the tree canopy is diminishing at an alarming rate, officials say, destroying the benefits that trees provide. The area’s tree canopy is continuing to decline, says the latest study, released in December by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission.
The Urban Tree Canopy in the county has decreased from 37% in 2013 to 35% in 2019, and in Cleveland, it has dropped from 19% to 18%, according to the report.
These changes may not look huge, but they are cause for alarm, says Rich Cochran, president and CEO of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, one of about 30 organizations that belong to the Cleveland Tree Coalition. The ideal tree canopy for the region is 40%, he says.
“That trend has been going on since the 1950s, when we had an estimated 50% tree canopy,” Cochran says. “To get back to a 30% canopy, we need to plant 35,000 trees a year for the next 10 years. Right now, we’re planting about 3,500 trees a year, so we need to be replacing 10 times as many trees.”
Young trees ready for planting last Arbor DayStudies show that the region is losing an average of 97 acres of the Urban Tree Canopy each year. If action isn’t taken, Cleveland’s tree canopy could dwindle to 14% by 2040. With this reduction, distressed urban areas are hit hardest, Cochran says, creating an “urban island effect” with summer temperatures as much as 20 degrees warmer than areas with healthy tree canopies.
Many trees have been lost due to development efforts, Cochran says, while other problems center around tree maintenance and disease. In the 1970s, Dutch elm disease, with a 100% mortality rate, devastated many of the elms that lined Cleveland-area streets. And, Cochran says, in recent years, emerald ash borer disease has infiltrated the area. “It’s really killed almost all of our ash trees now,” he says.
Like many U.S. cities, Cleveland and the county are working to replenish the canopy. At the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit in October, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson announced a commitment of $1 million a year for the next 10 years to replenish the canopy.
In addition to the city’s commitment, the county plans to invest $5 million over five years to support the region’s tree canopy, and the county's Healthy Tree Canopy Grant Program recently announced awards totaling $950,000 to 26 projects sponsored by municipalities, neighborhoods, and nonprofits.
Cochran estimates the total cost to replenish the canopy and step up the efforts will be about $100 million in the next 10 years, but the investment will be worth the reward of cleaner air and water, and overall living quality. Even now, officials estimate that Cleveland’s tree canopy, as limited as it is, provides $28 million in benefits to the city each year.
“Trees make our neighborhoods safer, healthier and more valuable,” says Cochran. “Trees are far more important than we ever realized. The science is now clear: In the context of cities, trees are essential to human health and happiness.”
The fight is not just a local battle, Cochran says. There are examples where the tree canopy has been preserved or restored, he says, citing New York City’s successful MilllionTreesforNYC and Pittsburgh’s TreePittsburgh works on preserving the tree canopy, although Cochran says Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain encourages better preservation.
Locally, Cochran says they are considering a variety of plans—including a sin tax of sorts—to raise money for trees and improve the canopy. “It’s definitely a problem that happens in America and around the world,” he says. “We’re looking at all kinds of ideas from different sources.”
People can do three main things to help the cause, Cochran says. “Plant a tree on your own property,” he says. “Make sure you have a good canopy around your house. It’s also a good investment—trees improve the property values.”
Second, for those who want to be more involved, Cochran suggests looking into the Land Conservancy’s Sherwick Tree Steward Training Program, where participants will learn how to plant, care for, and maintain trees before going out into the community to help plant trees and educate residents on the benefits of a healthy tree canopy.
The Cleveland Tree Coalition plans to give away hundreds of trees countywide in observance of Arbor Day on Friday, April 24.
And lastly, Cochran encourages people to show their passion for bringing back the canopy. “Communicate with elected officials about the importance of planting trees,” he says. “Contribute to organizations like the Western Reserve Land Conservatory and Holden Forests & Gardens.