Urban Forest Plan aims to protect and expand city’s tree canopy

Trees are a vital part of life, providing shelter, shade, and air quality benefits. The City of Boston is on a mission to preserve and expand its tree canopy in an equitable, collaborative way with its Urban Forest Plan.

According to the City of Boston website, the city’s Urban Forest Plan “is a strategic long-term investment in the health of the trees and canopy in Boston, and the City’s diverse residents.”

The Gazette spoke with the city’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Spaces, Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, to learn more about the Urban Forest Plan and its current status, as well as about moving forward with building and preserving tree canopy equitably throughout the city.

White-Hammond said that to get going, the city completed a tree assessment to see where different trees are in the city, and “then the next question is, ‘what ca we do to strengthen the canopy?’

She said that currently, the city has a “clear assessment of street trees,” but is working on taking a deeper dive into open space and private trees. 

In Mission Hill, tree canopy findings from the Tree Canopy Assessment show that between 2014 ad 2019, the neighborhood saw a net gain of about three acres of canopy coverage, most of which can be seen on sidewalks and public open space, according to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. 

Additionally, the tree canopy is 12 percent on right-of-way; 30 percent on residential land; 30 percent on public open space; 21 percent on institutional land;  two percent on mixed use land,; four percent on commercial land; and two percent on industrial land. 

The city is now coming up with ways about how to effectively and efficiently increase tree canopy in the city, including everything from the loss of private trees to educating residents on how they can contribute to the process.

The education component is one of the leading parts of this effort, and White-Hammond said that “part of the reason we’re losing private trees” is because many residents are not educated on trees and tree care, and therefore are not able to advocate on their behalf.

“People will fight for something if they value it,” she said, adding that she’s “not sure everyone knows enough to value it.” Trees offer many public health benefits, including effects on air quality and providing shade from the dangerous rays of the sun.

While questions about how to engage residents have already been raised, no definite solutions have been identified as of yet. She said there have been discussions of introducing “an official program” that would help residents “engage in a more consistent way,” as the city will have to rely on the help of residents due to a lack of staff. 

Until this year, the city only had one full time arborist, which has increased to two this year, but the goal is to increase the number even further to match that of other cities. 

Additionally, there is no current plan to regulate the removal of trees on private property, but White-Hammond said that is something that is definitely being considered. She said that an ordinance limiting tree removal will be filed with the City Council next spring.

“We want to make sure that if we put an ordinance in place, it will be effective and enforceable,” White-Hammond said, adding that some other cities have ordinances that have not always been enforced, which is something she wants to avoid in Boston. 

White-Hammond also said that the city has to “be honest that we have some limitations in our own resources,” and to make more enforceable laws around trees, more staff will be needed. 

Tree care includes protecting larger, older existing trees as well as planting new ones. In parts of the city like Jamaica Plain where the tree canopy is more dense, those trees need to be cared for and protected from being torn down for development purposes.

“For those folks in Jamaica Plain who have backyards,” White-Hammond said, “we want to see people value trees as an integral part of any neighborhood at the private level, not just the public level.”

Caring for new, smaller trees has also proven to raise some challenges across the city, as varying conditions can lead to many of them not surviving and being able to contribute to the canopy. 

“Climate change has radically shifted conditions,” White-Hammond said, which can lead to over or under watering trees if the watering schedule is “based on previous historical conditions.”

She said a solution to combating this is to “figure out how to be responsive to climate change creating such variability,” and this is another instance where residents can easily lend a helping hand.

A resident who lives down the street from a new tree can monitor it and decide when it needs watering, and doing this can supplement the work of the city.

White-Hammond said that when it comes to “things like watering,” it’s “helpful to have residents” step up and pitch in. The city is thinking about ways it can educate residents and encourage them to become involved, as well as ask their neighbors to help out by adopting trees.  

During the tree inventory, the city collected information on what trees are most prevalent in each neighborhood, which White-Hammond said is being used to determine the success of certain trees in certain areas and how to best care for them. 

She said that the city is examining which trees work best in urban environments, where they are frequently subject to things like snow removal chemicals and gas leaks, which can impact a tree’s health. The way a tree’s roots grow is also pertinent information in an urban setting when looking at placement.  

White-Hammond said that the city wants to “make sure we have a diversity of trees so that if ay particular pest comes along or disease comes along that affects one species, we don’t lose every species.”

In Mission Hill, the Honeylocust is the most common species of tree, followed by the Callery Pear, the Red Maple, the Japanese Zelkova, and the Northern Red Oak rounding out the top five. The full tree inventory can be found on the city’s website. 

In moving forward with the Urban Forest Plan, White-Hammond said she’s most excited to see the interest residents have expressed in caring for the trees in their neighborhoods, as well as tackling the equity issues that come with managing the city’s tree canopy.

“A lot of where our canopy is and is not has to do with historic issues of race and class; what parts of the city were redlined,” she said, as well as “who we thought was deserving of that open space.”

She said that the desire from residents to put in the work is there when she talks with community groups, and she’s excited to “get creative” about different solutions and “the idea that we could right some historical wrongs that would make our city more resilient,” she said. “I see that happening every time we meet.”

To view the interactive map and see where Boston’s tree canopy is, visit https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/43dccf3f51104a86ac8c4790a13e9d71.

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