Digging out of a Tree Deficit: Changing a City from Gray Back to Green Requires Computer Savvy, High-Tech Pictures, and Local Action

By Leatherman, Courtney | American Forests, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Digging out of a Tree Deficit: Changing a City from Gray Back to Green Requires Computer Savvy, High-Tech Pictures, and Local Action


Leatherman, Courtney, American Forests


When Sheila Hogan wants to tell the story of the decline of trees in Washington, DC, she stops talking and starts showing old black and white photos. The glossies, taken in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, show the city's main arteries like K Street and East Capitol Street lined with statuesque American elms; their vase-shaped, expansive canopies shading the streets.

Hogan, executive director of the Casey Trees Endowment Fund, doesn't need recent photos to illustrate the contrast today. Local residents and politicians know the images in those old photos are a far cry from the picture along those same city streets today, where 10-foot Japanese zelkovas and Shademaster honeylocust struggle for survival in planter boxes imbedded in brick sidewalks. Along some streets, there are no trees at all.

Photos can help make some people pay attention to a city's "tree deficit"; they can even inspire activism. But they don't do much for municipal planners who need more than nostalgia to prepare for the future.

While more and more policymakers and planners have come to understand the environmental and economic benefits trees provide in terms of stormwater management, air quality, and energy conservation--and as state and federal regulators develop tougher standards in all these areas--what planners need now are tools to map out the urban forest and to incorporate that "green infrastructure" into their thinking.

After all, it's easy for planners to figure out where sewer lines are laid, power lines are run, and manholes placed: The planners just check out a computer database that maps the location of those various components through technology called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). What's hard is figuring out where the trees are planted.

And that's where AMERICAN FORESTS believes it can help cities. With support from the U.S. Forest Service and the use of new high-resolution satellite imagery, AMERICAN FORESTS is working on high-tech mapping of individual trees. Its first project, which will he presented at the 2001 National Urban Forest Conference September 5-8, focuses on the Washington metropolitan region with the idea that it could serve as a model for cities and regions around the country.

An earlier study that detailed the District's declining tree cover helped prompt Betty Brown Casey's $50 million endowment to reforest the city. The Casey Trees Endowment Fund is helping to fund the current DC analysis.

For years, AMERICAN FORESTS has used other technology, like images from the Landsat 7, to show policymakers the alarming rate at which green spaces were being overtaken by gray surfaces. The images, taken several years apart, made the point that the trend toward declining tree canopy coverage was costly--not just for environmental reasons but for economic ones: the more impervious surfaces, the more stormwater runoff, and the more need for building expensive infrastructures to manage stormwater.

But the Landsat only gave a 30-meter pixel resolution, too broad to discern anything smaller than a Wal-Mart or a cluster of at least six mature trees.

"It's a challenge for us to take Landsat and talk about managing" the urban forest, explains Phillip Rodbell, program leader for the Forest Service's Northeastern Area Urban and Community Forestry Program. He was intrigued by AMERICAN FORESTS' plan to use new, higher-resolution images.

"It's very important to the Forest Service that the value of the urban forest resource is easily comprehended by our champions in Congress." And from a local policy perspective, "It's important that we graphically illustrate the scope and value of the urban forest resources.

"What I really like about AMERICAN FORESTS' model," Rodbell adds, "is its ability to capture people's imaginations and drive further investment in trees and forests as contributors to quality of life."

To understand the model AMERICAN FORESTS has in mind, it helps to know a little something about GIS. …

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