Going Out on a Limb: Building a tree canopy in Portland- and Baltimore

By Donna M. Owens
Portland, OR (August 1, 2007)- Long before Al Gore published An Inconvenient Truth, before hybrid cars dotted our roadways, and before recycling became hip, a small nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, was planting trees to help save the planet. Friends of Trees, a group dedicated to building community through tree planting, was founded in 1989, the same year that the first President Bush created urban forestry departments in all fifty states. And thanks to the organization’s consistent work over the last eighteen years-done cooperatively with Portland’s Urban Forestry Commission, the Bureau of Environmental Services, and other agencies-this West Coast port city of some 562,000 residents has gained a nationally lauded reputation for its urban “tree canopy.”

The name refers to the top layer and widest branches of the larger, mature trees that form a vital umbrella over swathes of the city. This abundance of trees reduces the greenhouse effect, soaks up water to reduce storm-water damage, and promotes energy efficiency by shading homes so less electricity is needed to cool them.
Portland, which has successfully planted and maintained hundreds of thousands of trees over the last decade, stands as a model for older, East Coast industrial cities that are struggling with a host of complicated problems as they work to expand their own tree canopies. Last year, at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors, Portland and Baltimore were linked as recipients of the Home Depot Foundation’s annual Awards of Excellence for Community Trees and Urban Forestry. Baltimore won first prize in the large city category (populations that exceed 100,000); Portland was runner-up. Both Portland and Baltimore have had rigorous, volunteer-generated tree-planting campaigns, but Baltimore suffers from a more robust set of challenges.
Working in Portland’s favor is an outdoorsy, pro-environment attitude. “We’re a progressive city, with a sustainable environmental ethic,” says Friends of Trees’ executive director, Scott Fogarty, a Portland transplant and environmental activist who once battled coal mining companies in his native West Virginia.
Also, Portland’s location plays into its environmental dedication. “We’re an hour from the Pacific Ocean and can see the peaks of Mount Hood, the tallest mountain in Oregon,” says Fogarty. “This is a very green, verdant area. People see the natural beauty and can’t help but feel an environmental responsibility.”
Indeed, from its efficient public transportation system to residents who take advantage of bike-friendly routes, this is a town of “tree huggers”-and they’re proud of it. “It comes from the mayor on down,” says Fogarty, who credits Mayor Tom Potter and his predecessors with showing a commitment to green policies in word and deed. “The past three mayors have come out to plant,” he notes.
Portland has also instituted growth boundaries in the city code, and is considered a leader in controlling urban sprawl. The city has established an Office of Sustainable Development-something few large cities have done, and which Baltimore is currently in the process of establishing. Portland describes itself as a national leader in recycling rates.
Portland wisely parlays its eco-friendly image into a tourist attraction, capitalizing on its value with a visitor’s association logo that features an abstract design of a tree and the slogan “It’s not easy being green.”
“We plant on average 2,200 trees a year, and then about 20,000 native plants,” Fogarty says, explaining the city’s greening trajectory. “We plant by neighborhood, relying exclusively on volunteers. We have lunch and turn it into a party.”
It’s a formula that has worked for them. Over the past eighteen years, the organization has racked up impressive numbers: It has planted more than 340,000 trees and shrubs in the Portland- Vancouver metropolitan area. Just in the past year, some 2,000 volunteers have collectively spent an estimated 14,000 hours planting more than 23,000 trees and shrubs. The group buys trees from nurseries, offering them to the public at reduced fees. They typically plant non-native tree species, such as Japanese snowbells, considered less invasive in urban forest settings.
In Baltimore, a similar program exists-the twenty-three-year-old Parks & People Foundation-but the challenges it faces are different, and profound.
“We have a harder row to hoe here in Baltimore,” says Guy Hager, who heads Parks & People, “because of our history, and a longer period of development that has compacted the soils and left them polluted with lead, gasoline, arsenic, and other industrial pollutants.” Compounding this problem is the rainfall. “We have roughly the same forty inches of rain that Portland does, but their rain is more equally distributed over the year, while we have flash floods and droughts.” When the city was built, the implications of burying a vast network of streams beneath hordes of rowhouses was poorly understood. “Now the drains suck the water away from structures, but also the tree roots that need it.
“A good ten to fifteen percent of the trees we plant here in Baltimore don’t make it,” says Hager. “And that’s higher than it should be.” The organization helps neighborhood groups plant approximately 1,000 trees a year-augmenting the city’s planting program, which adds another 2,000 to 3,000. Mayor Sheila Dixon has said that she plans to double that number to 6,000 new trees annually.
The tricky part will be helping those trees survive.
“We have a lot of red clay soil and sand here,” says Hager, “and that contributes to the difficulty some trees have in surviving.” Further, diesel fumes, especially prominent at bus stops and along busy truck routes, are deadly to trees. In 2001, the U.S. Forestry Service did a survey of the city’s trees and discovered that approximately ten percent of the standing trees were dead. A year and a half ago, then-mayor Martin O’Malley put an additional $1 million in the budget to help with clearing and pruning. “Now the City has a systematic pruning cycle in place that will make sure every tree has a look-see once every seven years,” Hager says.
In March 2006, Baltimore City adopted the “Urban Forestry Task Force Recommendation,” which called for doubling the existing land covered with tree canopies from an estimated twenty percent to forty percent over the next thirty years. The goal is in response to greater need for urban areas to better manage storm water run-off that adversely impacts Chesapeake Bay water quality, and quality of life issues in general.
Parks & People is also working very hard to educate the community about the care of newly planted trees-an essential element to keeping them alive. “Most of the trees planted here are about five years old and their lateral roots are severed when they’re dug up,” says Hager. “That shocks and stresses a tree so severely that it takes three years for it to truly recover.”
It’s not enough to simply water a new tree for a season, says Hager, who encourages residents to carefully tend the new trees that dot our city’s sidewalks. “You really need to baby that tree for three years to bring it back from its suspended animation.” (See below.)
Education is key here-and one of the places where the Portland populace differs in its attitude from some Baltimoreans. Occasionally, city residents complain that trees are messy (berries and leaves clutter the sidewalks). And some don’t realize that trees need care. “We’ve had people leave our training session who say they never really thought of a tree as a living thing, but more like a light post that gets knocked down-you just put it up again,” says Hager.
Still, both Portland and Baltimore tree huggers see real changes and are optimistic about not only their respective broadening tree canopies, but also the sense of community tree-planting engenders.
“Every culture across the world-in Europe, the Middle East, Africa-has an unmistakable bond with trees,” Fogarty says. “From the earliest times, we have used their wood for shelter, their nuts and berries for food, or we’ve rested under a tree. Human culture is intertwined with trees.”
How to tend the sapling in front of your house
The first three years of a tree’s life on the streets are hard. It arrives in its dirt playpen already severely traumatized: Many lateral roots are severed as it is dug up; foreign soil throws it for a loop. As it matures, problems grow. Kids snap its branches. Bikes are locked to it. Diesel bus fumes suffocate it. To protect your own sidewalk sapling and dramatically increase its chances of survival, take the following steps:
1. Give the tree three to four large buckets of water once a week. Loosen compacted soil so the water penetrates, rather than simply running off onto the sidewalk.
2. Next time you’re at Home Depot, pick up an extra bag of mulch to put around your tree. It will help it retain moisture over the long, hot summer.
3. Never box a tree in with stones, logs, cement or any other impermeable material. They prevent vital rain runoff from saturating the tree well.
4. If you plant flowers around your tree, choose ones that require little watering so that they will not compete with the tree for water. Select flowers that are drought tolerant or that are listed as good for xeric conditions.
5. Don’t let your dog make this a favorite spot for pee-mail messages-this gesture begets more of the same from four-legged friends, and this is very bad for trees.
Related Resources:
Friends of Trees
Parks & People Foundation