Replanting the Forest City

Thomas Crowther, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, recently completed the most extensive tree census ever done. He reported his findings in the September 2 issue of the journal Nature.

Through ground-sourced information and satellite images, his team estimated the number of trees worldwide is at more than three trillion, eight times more than the previous estimate. Yet Crowther says the new tree census suggests that from before human civilization until now, the planet has lost half of its trees. 

That loss translates into environmental issues and accelerated global warming. The Western Reserve Land Conservancy is doing its part in Cleveland to help reverse the effects of global tree loss by addressing a regional deforestation crisis.

The Land Conservancy and its Reforest Our City program have made grants for urban tree-planting projects available to nonprofits groups during the fall planting season.

This is the second round of grant funding after Reforest Our City’s first successful urban reforestation grants were offered last spring. Along with the Land Conservancy’s effort, the City of Cleveland released a city-wide tree plan designed to reverse urban deforestation in Cleveland.

“We needed a more comprehensive approach to tree planting,” says Sarah Ryzner, the director of projects for the Land Conservancy. “We have professionals who know a lot about urban planting so they can recommend varietals and quantity of trees.” 
Grants available for planting

Approximately $10,000 is available for tree planting exclusively in Cleveland, which is enough to plant between 50 and 100 trees in Cleveland neighborhoods. “We’re using a new recommended species list that will help us incorporate [species] diversity and urban tolerance,” Ryzner explains, adding that organizers are working on raising more money and additional grant funding to reach an ideal goal of planting 10,000 trees in Cleveland.

The organization has been able to plant 50 trees during the first round of grant funding and a total of 1,200 trees through Reforest Our City. A few of the places those 1.200 trees now grow are in Eco Village on the Detroit Shoreway, the Franklin Avenue Reading Garden, Saint Luke’s Manor, and Slavic Village.

Reforest Our City aims to plant trees on land that is not owned by the city because prior approval is needed. Instead, to expedite the process, organizers want to focus on planting in privately-owned areas. Nonprofit groups eligible for funding include churches, schools, development corporations and block clubs.

The only stipulations on who can receive funding for tree planting is: one member of the nonprofit group must be in the Land Conservancy’s Tree Steward Program, a tree stewardship and education program, and the group must have a three year tree caring plan in place.

The vision and reality

In the 1820s, Cleveland was dubbed “The Forest City.” The city got the title when William Case, the secretary of the Cleveland Horticultural Society and Cleveland’s mayor from 1850 to 1851, encouraged the planting of shade trees.

But the city has since deviated from the former mayor’s forestation support. Ryzner explains that currently, the Land Conservancy is “looking to maintain the current tree canopy because more is lost every year.” Cleveland annually loses 97 acres of tree canopy.
The Cuyahoga County Planning Commission found that 38 percent of all land in the county was covered by tree canopy -- with Cleveland well below the county average at only 19 percent. The silver lining to this slim number is that, of the remaining 81 percent of Cleveland land without tree cover, the commission has deem 52 percent of it possible for tree planting.

Even with more than half of Cleveland in need of tree canopy, the Reforest Our City program is more concerned with the quality of projects they fund. “We don’t take on projects just for the sake of saying we planted a 100 trees,” says Ryzner. “We don’t have a target number - we’re looking for projects that can be successful.”

A successful tree planting in any given Cleveland neighborhood involves a lot of planning to select a planting site, maintenance, and stewardship.

Colby Sattler, a forester for the Land Conservancy, explains the process: “We go through the site with the applicants to see the planting opportunities and discover the needs of the community. Based on that we make a recommendation, but we’ll never recommend anything that is invasive – diversity is key.”

Sattler says public perception is the biggest challenge for urban re-forestation. “For a long time we have undervalued and taken for granted how beneficial trees are to human health and wellness” explains Sattler. “The average homeowner has experienced trees that are poorly maintained.”

This can range from the planting of invasive species that dominate areas so nothing else can grow to large, aging, and unmaintained trees causing damage from falling branches.

Sattler explains people’s tendencies to focus on the negatives of tree planting – falling debris and roots cracking foundations and drainpipes – create an unwillingness to reforest. Sattler and the Reforest Our City initiative overcome this hurdle by talking openly about the realities. “Trees keep giving throughout their lifecycle,” he says.

The benefits of trees

The obvious benefits to tree planting include reduced home heating and cooling costs by providing shade and wind insolation, increased property values and aesthetic values. But there are an increasing number of reasons to plant trees that extends far past aesthetics and financial benefits.

Sattler cites recent studies that have found exposure to trees and nature help improve cognitive function in children, reduce the need for ADHD medication, and lower the heart rate. There is also the discovery of a direct link between larger tree canopies and decreases in respiratory issues, such as asthma, caused by trees’ ability to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen through the process of photosynthesis.

Areas with greater tree coverage in the suburbs have seen decreases in respiratory problems, as opposed to the inner city, which has depleted tree canopy and increased cases of respiratory problems. “The restorative qualities and powers of trees is amazing”, says Sattler.

The Cleveland Tree Plan

The City of Cleveland along with five other organizations including the Land Conservancy, have formally recognized Cleveland’s largely depleted tree canopy and the benefits associated with replenishing deforested areas. On October 20th, Cleveland city hall announced the Cleveland Tree Plan, a re-forestation plan that cites the roughly 10,000 public trees that have been lost since 1940 and continued deforestation of the city as a pressing crisis in Cleveland in need of immediate attention.

“The plan is unique in that it is not a city plan, but a community-wide collaboration to rebuild the urban forest through partnership,” explains an executive summary of the Cleveland Tree Plan. The reforesting partnership includes the Holden Arboretum, LAND studio, and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.

The Cleveland Tree Plan summary outlines three main goals in its mission of replenishing Cleveland’s canopy: “Recognize trees as critical community infrastructure; reverse the trend of canopy loss; [and] assume full stewardship for the tree infrastructure.”
The second goal involves the actual planting of trees in the city of Cleveland, which the community-wide partnership will approach with the “right tree, right place, right purpose” strategy to ensure that all trees are planted equally so all residents can benefit from re-forestation.

The plan recognizes a gap between wealth and political status prevalent in many Cleveland neighborhoods but explains that objective-based planting will ensure that trees are planted in neighborhoods and areas that have the largest depleted canopy and the greatest relative need for the benefits of increased tree canopy.

The need for reforestation in a neighborhood is based on a variety of factors, with first priority being the current tree canopy coverage in a neighborhood. Then the plan takes into account factors such as the percentage of a given Cleveland neighborhood’s population with asthma, risk of storm water runoff, urban heat island rankings and the elderly population.

Between the immediate actions of people like Ryzner and Sattler at the Land Conservancy currently planting trees in Cleveland neighborhoods with the Reforest Our City grants and the sustained, long-term Cleveland Tree Plan, Cleveland’s depleted canopy will be restored and the city will once again be able to proudly display its adoring nickname, The Forest City.