By Diana Nelson Jones
Pittsburgh, PA (January 17, 2012)- I’m trying to imagine a very hot summer day. OK, I’m imagining it. Walking on a block with no trees, weary, dripping and miserable, the heat beating down making my hair itch. Then I round a corner and, ahhhh, shade. I release the breath I’ve been holding. Trees, one after the other, line the street. Instant relief.
That’s one of the reasons most people love trees even if they don’t hug them. Beyond personal comfort, trees give us better air, catch stormwater, shelter wildlife and improve property value. That’s the short list.
In the past several years, with work by Tree Pittsburgh and TreeVitalize, Pittsburgh has hit a higher gear in service to its trees, although we’re still playing catch-up since a 2005 study showed that we had one street tree for every 10 people. The national average is one tree to two people.
Next week, we undertake the first comprehensive urban canopy inventory and master plan. Tree Pittsburgh will hold a series of public meetings to begin formulating it. They are all free, with refreshments, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.: Jan. 23, Union Project, 801 N. Negley Avenue, Highland Park; Jan. 24, Children’s Museum, 10 Children’s Way, Allegheny Center; Jan. 25, WYEP, 67 Bedford Square, South Side.
A symposium in 2010 laid the groundwork for the master plan, said Danielle Crumrine, executive director of Tree Pittsburgh (formerly Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest). It was informed by two studies — a tree canopy analysis, which showed that we are 42 percent covered, and a random sampling of plots, each a tenth of an acre.
Using USDA Forest Service software, two visiting arborists and local residents sampled plots for a month, looking at everything growing on it, she said. “That allowed us to understand what types of trees we have, their age, their condition.” The study identified the most common species as black locust, Norway maple and black cherry and that 58 percent of the trees were less than 6 inches in diameter. It was hardly a full inventory, but the sample trees were determined to remove 519 tons of pollution a year, store 497,000 tons of carbon and save $3.13 million in energy in buildings.
The master plan will be “a road map with details, recommendations and resources we need to manage our city’s urban forest,” Ms. Crumrine said. “More important, it describes a shared vision for the future of our urban forest. “Our trees have come to define our identity,” she said, citing the “green wrap around the city” when you come through the Fort Pitt Tunnels. “We have the topography to thank.”
At treepittsburgh.org, people have been filling out surveys, sharing tree stories as input for the planning process. The master plan will be a collaboration between Tree Pittsburgh and Tree Vitalize, with the city, nonprofits, academic and public support. The street tree inventory the city commissioned in 2005 shocked most people who thought we had double the number we did. It only counted sidewalk trees of which we had 30,000, but 10 percent of them were in such poor condition they had to be cut down.
“We did a lot of fundraising with that report in hand,” Mr. Crumrine said. “It enabled us to frame the problem and gave us measurable steps to take.” Tree Pittsburgh began managing contracts for the city to get street trees pruned. It started a Tree Tender program to train residents on the finer points of pruning and tree care.
“Then TreeVitalize came to town and things started to snowball,” she said.
In 2008, the city, county, state and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy created TreeVitalize Pittsburgh and planted its first tree in Lawrenceville, which had been bereft of trees when Molly Stephany moved there in the early 2000s and became active in tree care. She is a tree tender. “I grew up in suburbs with a bunch of land and trees,” she said. “I liked Lawrenceville but I had a lot of anxiety and finally realized it was because there weren’t any trees. I needed trees if I was going to live here.”
When I walk home to my tree-lined street on hot summer days, I think about that sometimes. Would this street be half as desirable if there were no street trees? My answer would have to be no, and not even half but not at all.