The Greening of St. Louis

By Jackson, James P. | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

The Greening of St. Louis


Jackson, James P., American Forests


The City of St. Louis is a metropolis awakening. Many people are aware of the city's rebirth from a sleepy river town to a vibrant urban center. Most credit the lifting of spirits that came after the completion of the Gateway Arch, the soaring riverfront symbol that has come to represent St. Louis as surely as the Washington Monument or the Eiffel Tower symbolize their respective cities. But few people know that the city of the Arch has recently taken giant steps toward becoming a leader in the movement to paint our cities green.

For years St. Louis-forthcoming host to the American Forestry Association and the Fourth Urban Forestry Conference on October 15-19- suffered losses among its trees. As in most large cities where nature's environments are often sorely tested, planting did not keep up with attrition. Part of the problem was simply neglect.

Among the factors contributing to the losses were too much pavement, dry and compacted soils, low soil fertility, and loss of American elms to disease. Prior to the 1950s, when the city passed ordinances to control coal smoke, excessive smoke compounded the problem. Efforts to counteract the effects of air pollution resulted in a selection of trees that are no longer considered suitable-even including the weedlike, smelly Ailanthus.

But enlightened urban forestry has lately found a true friend in St. Louis. In 1988 Mayor Vincent Schoemehl wheedled a whopping $5 million from the city's budget for planting trees. This was a much-needed and timely antidote. Yet, considering the many needs of the citizenry and constraints on the city finances, what convinced Schoemehl's administration to spend so much on trees?

The answer to that question is a story with two phases. First came a citywide inventory of all living trees and the losses in recent years. Then the findings-which also showed how replacing dead trees and adding others to the total would serve citizen needs-had to reach sympathetic ears at city hall.

The St. Louis Forestry Division prepared a detailed chart showing that total losses over the past 24 years had exceeded plantings by 30,189 trees. This in itself was enough to prove the value of the inventory. Then City Forester Gary Bess and his staff showed their chart to the mayor, presented the most probable reasons for the losses, explained the values of urban trees, and offered detailed plans for reversing the attrition. They made a convincing case.

What's more, the replanting project in St. Louis is in the true vein of Global ReLeaf, the American Forestry Association's new program to combat the greenhouse effect through urban and rural reforestation. Trees in cities assimilate carbon dioxide and thus reduce the buildup that feeds global warming. The mayor became better informed about how trees freshen the air, absorb street noise, serve as windbreaks, and provide cooling shade on hot summer days. To the benefit of his constituents, he realized that good urban forestry is a joining of people and trees. The $5 million was soon forthcoming.

All this, of course, involved a commitment by many workers to plant new and better trees. Recently, I was taken on a brief tour of St. Louis by Mark Grueber, a young and enthusiastic urban forester who plans treescapes for the city. What he showed me was a sampling of nearly 4,000 trees planted in 1988. Because seedlings and saplings are so vulnerable to the difficult urban environment, and also subject to vandalism, nearly all of the trees were in balled form and at least two inches in trunk diameter. They were planted in oversized pits and provided with a ready source of irrigation. This work in itself involved a major commitment of both labor and money.

Grueber explained that the tree species were selected for local hardiness and beauty and, in cases where space was restricted, for their anticipated limits of growth. Of the total, some 2,500 trees were designated for neighborhood projects-that is, set out with the help and cooperation of local residents and small businesses. …

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