Environment: What Philadelphia Residents Should Look Out for When Applying for a Street Tree Permit

The City of Philadelphia is launching the Philly Tree Plan, a 10- year plan to help grow, maintain, and protect the city canopy. However, despite the city’s efforts to build a greener Philadelphia, residents still face obstacles when facing getting local trees planted. 

Local environmental and tree tending groups are helping residents along in the process of getting trees planted. Although the Philly Tree Plan has been active for a year, there are still nine years left for residents to see the real impact.  

Organizations like UC Green, Center City Residents’ Association Green Tree Tenders, and Queen Village Tree Tenders work alongside residents to help them get a tree planted and navigate other barriers that arise during the process. 

Tempest Carter applied to have a street tree planted through one of Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s 202 tree tending organizations, UC Green, where she is also a board member. For her, it was an easy process. 

“It was pretty seamless,” Carter said, describing the application which asks for a general date and time to deliver the tree, and what type of tree you want. 

“I wanted a flowering tree,” she said.

Carter’s first tree was planted in April 2021, and that tree ended up dying. Carter worked with UC Green volunteers to determine the reason the tree died. They removed the dead tree and provided Carter with a new flowering tree she will get on Nov. 20 as a part of a larger tree planting even with other tree planting programs.  

Ethan Leatherbarrow is a special project coordinator for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation responsible for various projects developing the City’s street tree inventory, such as data management and field inspections. Along with working for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, Leatherbarrow is a UC Green volunteer. 

“Depending on location, homeowners have a few ways to get trees planted in their property,” Leatherbarrow said. “Essentially, a permit is required for any new street tree planting, but not for yard trees. Planting organizations such as Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, PHS, private contractors, and certified arborists are all viable methods for new plantings.”

Although the application for a street tree is simple, external obstacles can hinder getting that tree planted. 

“Each potential planting site will have highly variable conditions that may decrease the likelihood of permit approval such as low hanging overhead wires, cracked sidewalk slabs, or the presence of water, gas, and sewer infrastructure,” Leatherbarrow said. “PPR will not approve applications for permits to plant species that do not conform to our species selection criteria.”

UC Green Executive Director Kiasha Huling is also aware that built-in barriers can be an issue for residents looking to get a permit to plant a street tree. UC Green’s Arbor and Art’s Instagram auction helped raise money for UC Green. UC Green plans to create a fund for residents experiencing built-in environmental issues and help them cover the cost to remedy those issues. 

UC Green is a tree tending organization that is responsible for greening the West and Southwest Philadelphia communities. Greening these communities included planting and maintaining street trees, maintaining community gardens, and organizing block cleanups in the 19104, 19143, and 19139 ZIP codes. 

“If you want a tree, you have to repair your own sidewalk that the former tree messed up,” Huling said. “A lot of residents say, ‘That makes no sense to me,’ and I could agree, but also it is the way it’s set up.”

Huling also explained how a block structure can be another hindrance to tree planting. 

“The City of Philadelphia has a large inventory of carriage blocks because we are an old city,”  Huling said. “The rule is you have to have from your property out to the curb there has to be 3 feet of a walking path, and the minimum size of a tree pit has to be 3 feet. So you need at least 6 feet of clearance, and that excludes a lot of blocks.” 

Cracked sidewalks and other structural issues are one reason why residents cannot get a tree planted on their property. The owner is responsible for fixing these issues in order to get a permit for the street tree. 

Other tree planting issues can be unique to different areas of the city. Common among  Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s 202 tree tenders are the unique challenges faced in each community. 

According to the PHS website, tree tenders are “groups in their neighborhoods that transform the health and well-being of their communities by rallying neighbors to plant and care for trees.” 

Huling explains the challenges other Philadelphia tree tenders face in their unique neighborhoods. 

Huling talked about Philly Tree People, who are responsible for East Kensington, Kensington, and Fishtown. 

“They are facing a lot of development,” Huling said. “They think of tree planting from a perspective of encouraging builders to include a tree pit and they also have smaller blocks than most neighborhoods.”

According to Huling, Southwest Center City Tree tenders have many issues around being in a more of a high traffic area, more retail spaces, more visitors, and fewer homeowners, but where there are homeowners, their property and trees are in more public places. 

Despite occasional barriers when getting a street tree planted, that is not always the case. 

“These processes have successfully planted many new trees for residents for years and continue to expand the canopy cover of this city annually,” Leatherbarrow said. “Philadelphia is fortunate to have a process by which homeowners can quickly and easily have trees planted for them at little to no cost.”

Leatherbarrow stresses the importance of green spaces and canopy in urban areas.

 “As we brace for the changes expected within the forthcoming decades, we will rely on the natural assets we have now to mitigate some of the effects of climate change,” Leatherbarrow said. “It is incumbent upon us to properly prepare ourselves and our city by managing our trees so that they might reach maturity and thus, the most efficient version of themselves.”

Those looking to apply for a street tree can start the process here

– Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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