Story by Kent Kuo
Earlier this year, the City of Philadelphia launched its first “Tree Plan,” a 10-year plan to manage and grow the city’s tree canopy. Neighborhoods with decent tree coverage tend to have a higher quality of life: cleaner air, more shade, and less intense heat, according to the plan.
Hunting Park has fewer trees than any other neighborhood in the city, and suffers from more intense heat, according to Philadelphia’s 2018 Tree Canopy Assessment. It’s the kind of neighborhood where investment from the city could address longstanding inequities in who benefits from trees, or at least, that’s the hope.
“We don’t have trees,” Brenda Crawford, energy specialist at Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee, said. “But we do want to have them.”
Less than 13% of Hunting Park has adequate tree canopy, according to the Tree Canopy Assessment, and most of the trees are in the Hunting Park itself, rather than dispersed through the whole neighborhood.
Implementing the tree plan, and bringing benefits of trees to underserved neighborhoods, requires extensive planning and coordination among various community organizations and government agencies.
“We hope to plant more trees in Philadelphia, to give Philadelphians a more healthy, comfortable environment,” Pennsylvania Horticultural Society director of trees Tim Ifill said.
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has planted more than 2,000 trees each year for the past 3 years.*
But that planting is not enough.
“The tree canopy coverage in the city of Philadelphia is 20%, which is not sufficient good canopy coverage, which is 30%,” Ifill siad. “We believe 30% of tree canopy coverage is enough for citizens to enjoy a better, healthier life.”
The Philly Tree Plan is the first comprehensive tree plan in Philadelphia.
“The reason why we want to put this plan together is in part because we have a lot of tree canopy in the city, and it is at risk,” said Erica Smith, community forestry manager at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. “We have lost 6% of tree canopy over the last 10 years.”
Equity and access to trees are fundamental parts of the plan, but bringing trees to certain neighborhoods requires a significant investment, especially if those neighborhoods have been neglected in the past, Smith said.
“We know that the canopy is not distributed across the city fairly, so the plan would determine where to plant trees, to make sure everyone has access to this resource,” Smith said.
Despite all the effort the city government and organizations have made, many challenges remain. Many residents are skeptical of free trees, often citing the costs of upkeep as well as potential sewer line and sidewalk damage as a reason to not plant more trees, Ifill said.
“The misunderstandings around trees are the major challenge for us,” he said. “And that is causing reluctance around accepting trees in neighborhoods.”
When Smith talks to residents about trees, she often hears complaints about the maintenance costs trees require.
“A lot of people understand the value of trees and do value trees, but they experienced that as a burden to them,” Smith said.
Smith said that in the past, a shortage of funds meant to help homeowners with tree upkeep led to a lack of tree maintenance, thus causing residents to see trees as a potential nuisance as they grow and age.
“We used to have trees in our neighborhood,” Crawford said. “However, the maintenance of trees was not done efficiently, causing trees to die.”
Dead limbs can also be a hazard and insurance liability for homeowners. Still, a lack of funds to support tree maintenance is not the only obstacle to keeping trees healthy and well-received in neighborhoods.
Trained volunteers are also needed to identify potentially diseased or damaged trees before they become a nuisance, Ifill said.
Meanwhile, Parks and Recreation is too short-staffed to manage all of the city’s trees once they’ve been planted, Smith said.
“We don’t have enough staff and capacities to maintain trees,” she said.
Crawford said the trees would be generally beneficial for Hunting Park, especially if city officials could find a way to help defray maintenance costs.
“If the government gives us money to plant trees along with its maintenance, it would be more helpful,” she said.
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*Correction: This story has been updated to include the most recent tree planting numbers from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.