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TreePhilly: Why A 30 Percent Tree Canopy in Philadelphia Matters

Joan Blaustein
Joan Blaustein
Joan S. Blaustein looked at a lot of neighborhoods in Philadelphia when she moved here from Pittsburgh less than a decade ago, and she wound up choosing Mt. Airy because of the way it looked and felt, particularly its natural infrastructure.

"I always have lived in areas surrounded by trees, so I couldn't live in an area that wasn't treed," says Blaustein.
Still, there are tree issues even in Mt. Airy, where they are plentiful. Many of the houses in Blaustein's neighborhood are more than 80 years old, and so are the trees that were planted on the streets at that time. A lot of those trees will be coming to the end of their lifespan soon.

"We have to plan for diversity of ages and species in every area, even in areas that are highly forested now," she says. "That peaceful quality you get, sitting and staring at trees in my little city backyard, I can't imagine it without trees."

As Director of Urban Forestry and Ecosystem Management at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Blaustein is overseeing the city's TreePhilly effort, which aims to restore the city's tree canopy to 30 percent. Blaustein's role is somewhat unique, in that many times urban forestry is part of a city's operations division or part of natural resource management – not the parks department.

Tree cover is much more than an aesthetic issue. As Blaustein points out, "trees deliver a lot of services," including temperature regulation, improving air quality and storm water management. In Philadelphia, increasing the tree canopy will have two significant impacts – shade in the summer to decrease energy use and relief for water from excessive rains as 100-year storms become more and more frequent.

The city's tree canopy has been an increasing issue that has also drawn the interest and effort of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who is spearheading Plant One Million, the largest multi-state tree-planting initiative in the country. The PHS Tree Tenders program prepares area residents to become local tree stewards.

According to a study by the University of Vermont released in March 2011 on the city's current and possible tree canopy, the city's overall canopy was a little better than previously thought, at 20 percent, and the goal of 30 percent coverage was deemed within reach (the city's tree canopy has been as high as 40 percent going back 40-50 years). However, there are nearly a dozen areas where the canopy is almost non-existent, between 3 and 8 percent: zip codes 19149, 19134, 19137 in the Northeast, 19122, 19123, 19125 in Kensington, Fishtown and river wards, and 19147, 19148, 19145, 19112 in South Philadelphia.

Specifically, South Philadelphia and Chinatown North have the lowest tree canopy (3 percent). Meanwhile, the Navy Yard, Eastwick and Bridesburg have the highest percentage of land available for tree canopy. The city's Tree Canopy Report concludes that while in theory, half of the city's land could support tree canopy, it is not a realistic goal because of factors like cost or land use (like recreation fields).

Blaustein says that effective city "street trees" include London Planes, which line the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and thrive in difficult conditions, and Crepe Myrtles, which are not native to Southeastern PA but are sized and shaped well for narrow streets or those with wires overhead.

A Tree in Every Yard
The study also revealed that while there is ample opportunity to plant trees in public spaces, the single biggest opportunity for TreePhilly to reach its goal is to plant in as many private yards as possible. Those residents interested in getting free trees for their property must provide information about the size of their yard. There are three or four species available, like Dogwoods, Redbuds or smaller flowering trees, that are well-suited for small yards (10x10 feet), and another selection of larger trees for yards at least 30x30.

"There are some people who wouldn't take one if we paid them," says Blaustein. "But when I listen to many of the calls we get, people are so thrilled they can plant one themselves. It's their own project."

Most residents will receive container trees, which are up to 6 feet tall and come in a 5-gallon container that most people can lift and get into their cars. TreePhilly works with a plant broker to import the exact species it needs from reputable growers within 100 miles from the city.

The hope is to distribute 2,000 trees in the spring and another 2,000 in the fall. Judging by early interest – nearly 500 people signed up and a couple thousand visited the TreePhilly website in the week after the program was first announced in February – there may be waiting lists by the end of the year. Blaustein and TreePhilly Tree Campaign Manager Erica Smith Fichman are working closely with neighborhood groups like the Ogontz Ave Revitalization Corporation, Frankford Community Development Corporation, and Tioga United to help spread the word.

"We're trying to make this as simple as possible," Blaustein says. "It isn't difficult to plant and take care of a tree if you follow certain steps."

TreePhilly, it should be noted, is simultaneously continuing its regular work of removing dead trees and pruning, which it has been doing for several years. The deadline to register for the spring tree giveaway is March 31, and distribution will be held during Arbor Week, April 21-28. Registration forms come in seven different languages, by the way.

The goal is to help everyone understand the meaning of a well-placed tree.

"Our kids will get the full benefit; it only accumulates value over time," says Blaustein. "That makes it really unique. It's like a gift to your children and grandchildren."

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedack here.

PHOTO of Joan Blaustein by Joe Petrucci
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