Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Three Overdue Steps For Durham’s Urban Forest

Judging from the unkempt landscaping around a city-owned building I frequent in Durham, NC where I live, management exhortations about appearance haven’t yet been translated into action.

Ironically, the facility houses a department responsible for not only all city facilities, but crews for roadside clean up and maintenance as well beautification efforts and urban forestry.  I sympathize, because I imagine it isn’t easy to marry care for the natural environment into a culture long-dominated by buildings and hardscape.

It is another irony that so many of those responsible for a community’s “curb appeal” seem blind to its correlation to a healthy, growing tax base. Apparently, they can’t see the forest for the trees (smile.)  At the very least, they have not pieced together that it has the very same connection as it does to the value of their own personal property.

The neighborhood association where I live was recently forced to secure private grants and other funds to landscape around a city facility where I vote.  The historic building had just been renovated using voter-approved bonds but apparently that neglected to incorporate any re-landscaping or curb appeal.

Although much hype has been given to Durham being designated a Tree City USA each of the past 30 years, much can also be read into the city’s failure to participate in an urban forestry survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCOM,) the results of which were published in 2008 at the dawn of this past recession.

Durham is one of 70 cities and towns in North Carolina to earn the Tree City designation, second only to Charlotte among the state’s major cities in terms of tenure.  More than 3,400 cities and towns nationwide meet the criteria.  Indicative though of a lack of passion, is that only 135 took the time to respond to the best practices survey by USCOM.

One stipulation is that a community invest $2 per capita in managing its urban forest, a benchmark that seems hardly sufficient and in Durham results in planting only 350-400 trees a year, the number needed each and every day to just hold even.

More than 8 out of every 10 Americans live in urban areas, while more than 6 in 10 live in communities the size of Durham or larger.  But urban forestry is much more imperative for Durham, which is North Carolina’s fourth largest city shoehorned into the 17th smallest county by land area.

Already Durham has fallen below the state average of 48.2% for urban tree cover and 50.3% for the county as a whole.  This is unacceptable given the importance residents place on trees as a signature element of Durham’s sense-of-place, their importance to economic development and other documented social, health and cultural benefits.

Those responsible for Durham’s urban forest are highly trained in forest management but not necessarily in advocacy.  Because of the stoic “stiff upper lip” nature of many in that profession they may even do a disservice to their cause.

As all too common in urban forestry circles, Durham foresters narrowly restrict their accountability to trees along streets and on other city land but they know better.

As noted in the excellent 2010 report led by forest researcher Dr. David Nowak, overall urban forest management has been hampered by failing “to consider the surrounding ecosystem” including urban, mixed and rural areas in the overall community.

Nowak and his co-authors note that “comprehensive urban forest management considers all trees and associated elements across the entire jurisdiction to adequately address a heterogeneous landscape held by numerous landowners.”

Durham urban forestry is very fragmented.  It desperately needs three basic elements:

  • What the report calls a coordinated multi-jurisdictional effort that covers both the city and county of Durham including authority for foresters to operate in and address residents and commercial entities in both incorporated and unincorporated areas.


  • A complete inventory of the urban forest in both jurisdictions, not just trees located on public property.


  • A comprehensive urban forest management plan that embraces a strategy somewhere between zero-loss and regaining optimal forest levels including incentivizing private property owners.

Isolated measures such as the Parrish Street Plaza unveiled on Arbor Day or adopt-a-tree or the “water-to-trees” program that encourages city and county residents to contribute to reforestation by “rounding up” water bills are good (especially if the county grants permission for reforestation and maintenance in the unincorporated area that includes nearly all of Durham’s water supply.)

But they are somewhat futile in the absence of an urban forest management plan.  It is time for Durham to get serious about green infrastructure, before it is too late.

No comments: