Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Greening Philadelphia Tree by Tree

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By Morgan Zalot

William Penn's vision of a "Greene Country Towne" faded to black and grey long ago. Viewed from above, Philadelphia today has huge swaths of hot spots - where asphalt and concrete predominate and the color green is hard to find.  This is what makes the program underway to reforest the city so interesting.

No one exactly uses the word 'reforest,' but the ambitious scope of the Philadelphia Tree Planting Initiative demands a re-imagining of the city's landscape.

The plan's ambitious - and almost certainly unattainable-- goal is to plant 300,000 trees over the next five years and to double the percentage of the city's tree cover (or canopy, as it is called) by 2026.

The initiative nearly tripped and fell before it had a chance to begin.  Mayor Nutter originally allocated $2.5 million for tree planting this year in the Department of Recreation's budget, but later deleted the line item after City Council balked at the administration's spending plans. He made those cuts official on Thursday (July 15) and it will result in the layoff of 13 Rec Department employees who were to work in the program.  It was a retreat by the mayor, who was a supporter of the initiative

But, according to Patrick Morgan of the rec department, there is still $2.5 million set aside in the city's capital budget for three planting, plus $1.6 million in federal stimulus funds to pay for a year-long project to use laser technology to map with precision the city's tree canopy from the air.

Delancey Street.jpgMorgan admits that the 300,000 new tree goal is: "a crazy number, but it's one of those things that's like 'Go to the Moon.' It's crazy, but liberating. It frees us from institutional, bureaucratic barriers."

Fortunately for the city, its partner in the project is the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which has decades of experience in finding ways to add green to the city, dating back to its community garden program in the 1970s.

Among the public, the Horticultural Society is best known for the Philadelphia Flower Show, its annual extravaganza of haute gardening, but the society has strong street creds as well. Its 400 community gardens, planted on vacant and derelict lots, have greened up and helped sustain some of the city's poorest blocks.  Its Greening of Kensington project, which it ran from 1995 to 2002, is credited with helping to revitalize --  and beautify -- that gritty neighborhood.

 As part of its current Tree Vitalize program, the society has recruited Tree Tenders in dozens of neighborhoods. .

As part of that program, a group of Tree Tenders congregated in Francisville in April to plant 50 trees around the Francisville Recreation Center.

When Michael Leff, the society's point person on the tree initiative, talks about the project, he conjures up an image of, well, a tree with numerous branches, eventually spreading out across the city. He sees it (no pun intended) as a grassroots movement.

"It's so dependent on partnership and collaboration at all levels, all the way up and down -- from individual homeowner to commercial group to city agencies involved, to multiple city agencies to each other," Leff said. "Not to mention the state [and] federal support from the forest service Part of what makes it effective is getting that incredible partnership."

Morgan, Leff and the Tree Initiative folks make a compelling case for expanding the city's inventory of trees.  There is nothing as lovely as a tree, but trees are not simply pretty things, they are ecological workhorses, removing pollutants from the air and absorbing the runoff of storm water, thereby reducing the likelihood of floods or the necessity of building storm water holding tanks to manage sudden flows of water.

Take the Frankford-Tacony watershed, which runs in a band along the Frankford Creek, from the near suburbs eastward to the Delaware River.  According to a U.S. Forest Service study, the watershed has a 27 percent tree cover, which absorbs 761,000 tons of sulfur-dioxide, carbon-monoxide, ozone and other pollutants each year, in addition to absorbing 28 million cubic feet of storm water.

Pennypack Park.jpgObviously, a greater tree cover - especially in the city's end of the watershed, where the canopy lowest  - would mean more pollutants removed and more storm water absorbed.

Trees also reduce the "heat island" effect, common in dense urban environments, where acres of concrete and asphalt surfaces trap the heat.  It's the reason the temperature is always several degrees higher in Philadelphia than in northern and western suburbs, as the weather people always say.

Overall, Philadelphia's tree canopy is much lower than other, similar urban areas.  Tree cover here amounts to 15.7 percent of the city.  In New York City and Baltimore it is 21 percent; in Boston 22 percent; in Washington, D.C. 28 percent, in Atlanta 37 percent, according to the Forest Service.

The ideal is a 30-percent tree canopy, according to Alan Jaffe of the Horticultural Society, and the goal of the Tree Initiative is to take it to that number over time.

That would mean doubling the existing inventory, estimated to be 1.5 million trees in parks and natural locations and about 130,000 trees now planted on city streets.

The problem is not only that we do not have enough trees, but that the canopy is poorly distributed.  Dense in some areas, scant to nearly non-existent in others.

"For the most part, there are only two neighborhoods in all of Philadelphia - the Chestnut Hill area and the Germantown area - [that] have the most tree canopy," Jaffe said. "Then, there are South Philadelphia and central North Philadelphia, where it's like one to two percent tree cover. There are certain target areas where we know we need to plant more."

It isn't easy or cheap to plant street trees in particular.

Leff estimated that each tree can cost up to $500 to plant, depending on whether sidewalks need to be cut and how many trees are planted at one time (trees cost less when purchased from nurseries in bulk).

Tree planting takes a lot of work and a considerable amount of manpower. As Leff described it, the process begins with site inspection by one of PHS' employees or the city's arborists, who then select the type of trees best suited for the area and order the trees from the nursery. Then, contractors are brought in to cut out squares of concrete and fill the spaces with soil and mulch until the trees are ready to be planted.

Once the trees arrive for planting, PHS distributes them to volunteers who do the planting under the instruction of PHS experts. The Society plants a variable number of trees each year, including its 1,000-tree Tree Tenders plantings around the city in the spring and fall.

During the first year of a tree's planted life, Leff said, deep-soil watering with 15 to 20 gallons per tree on a weekly basis is crucial.

"After that, they can make it on their own," he said. "[The first year] is a tough year to be a street tree. ... The success and survivability of tree is having those people in the community who take some ownership of the tree. The tree request form they have to sign part that indicates they pledge to care for their tree.

As it turns out, it takes a village to raise a tree.

Read: One TreeTender's tale


Morgan Zalot is a Metropolis reporter who last wrote about  South Street.

In VoxPop, Lucien Crowder writes about his time spent in one of the greenest areas in the city. Read: A Wissahickon Day

Flag Photo: Aerial view of Rhawnhurst

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