Environment: Officials Promise Ambitious Plan for City’s Trees at Public Meeting

The Philly Tree Plan seeks to address both environmental quality and inequality by finding where trees can have the most positive impact and then plant them there.

  • Reporting by Drew Bishop.

Staff from Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and City Councilperson Cherelle Parker, hosted a public Zoom meeting on June 1 soliciting citizen feedback on the City’s tree plan.  

The meeting, led by Kyasha Tyson, director of community and economic development for Councilperson Parker, focused on the benefits of trees in Philadelphia and introduced constituent’s in Parker’s district to the Philly Tree Plan.  

“We can make recommendations based on feedback from residents across the city about ways that we can better care for trees planted across the district, and also address constituent concerns around our urban forestry,” Tyson said.

Marisa Wilson, the urban forestry community organizer at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, presented on three aspects of the Philly Tree Plan.  

Wilson began by focusing on “Philly’s Urban Forest,” highlighting the benefits of trees in an urban setting like Philadelphia. The urban forest is not one place, but spans across the city, she said. 

“Even though there might be fewer trees in some neighborhoods, and more trees in others, we see trees and the urban forest everywhere on our streets,” Wilson said. “Anywhere where you see a tree in Philadelphia, that is part of an urban forest, whether you think of it or not.”

She continued by discussing the many benefits of trees, referring to them as “the lungs of the city.” 

Wilson’s presentation also highlighted the temperature benefits of a dense urban forest, stating that there is a 20 degree difference between the hottest and coolest areas of the city, based on the amount of trees in the area. 

The second part of Wilson’s presentation entitled “The Unfair Forest,” explained reasons why Philadelphia’s urban forest is unequally distributed. As maps from the Fairmount Park Conservancy show, Philadelphia’s densest tree canopies are in the city’s wealthier and middle class neighborhoods, as well as in the less densely developed parts of the city. 

Historical redlining, barriers for renters, development patterns, and budget cuts for replacing trees have all led to inequities in tree density across the city.  

“Where trees are and are not is due to past policies and practices that have kept funding and support out of certain neighborhoods,” Wilson said.  

Other initiatives, such as TreePhilly and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Tree Tenders program, have made efforts to correct this imbalance by providing trees to residents at low cost. But the Philadelphia Tree Plan outlines City policies and investments for the future to permanently resolve unequal access to trees.  

Wilson described the tree plan as a “10-year strategic plan for the planting and care of trees in Philadelphia, guided by values of environmental justice, community engagement, and sustainability.” 

One initial step in this plan has been community engagement. Twenty neighborhood ambassadors have been hired to take photos and conduct interviews, gathering information on how trees and a lack of trees affect their communities.  

Staff are also developing a tree need map, Wilson said, looking at areas with little tree canopy, low air quality, and high heat vulnerability in order to determine where trees can be the most effective. 

Following Wilson’s presentation, the meeting was opened to the public for questions and comments. 

Jethro Heiko, a resident of East Oak Lane, spoke on his very close relationship with trees in Philadelphia. Heiko founded Oak Lane Maple, a group that taps maple trees in the city for sap to use in syrup and other sweets. They also teach people how to tap their own trees for personal use. 

Heiko had thoughts not only about the future of the urban forest, but also about past trees and the maintenance they require. 

“We need to think about caring for these old trees,” he said. “When you lose an old tree, it’s much harder to replace it. One thing that would be a great job creator would be removing the English ivy from all the trees that are being choked by it.”   

Not everyone at the meeting was a fan of trees. Walter Butler, a resident of West Oak Lane, said he worries that the Philly Tree Plan may not be taking into account the long term costs of trees. 

“One of the biggest concerns for me is whether there is anything already in place to fix the issues like broken concrete or how the trees are being maintained,” Butler said. “For me, that should be the primary focus right now.” 

As trees age and their roots lift concrete or damage pipes, private property owners often bear the costs of repair, Butler said. 

Butler spoke about an elderly man on his block with an overgrown, but beautiful, tree outside his home. Butler expressed interest in pruning the tree himself, but was concerned that it may be too much for just him to undertake.  

“Before we move in a more positive direction we have to correct what’s already going on,” he said. 

The City does have resources to help homeowners deal with tree maintenance, Tyson said.  

“In 2019, Councilwoman Parker allocated additional funding to Parks and Rec to remove some trees that were a public safety hazard and have new trees planted,” she said. “We encourage residents to advocate for funding, especially since it’s your tax dollars, to be assigned as you see priority.”  

Not every citizen’s question or concern was immediately resolved, but staff acknowledged the need for continued feedback. To assist in those efforts, a digital hub with more information about the tree plan and a survey soliciting broad perspectives on the role of trees in Philadelphia have been created. 

“This plan cannot be done without you all and your expertise,” Wilson said. “We are only as strong as your voices.”

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