While one of the most broadly acclaimed communities in America, Durham, NC where I live seems to be dawdling its way to one 15 year-old best practice only in fits and starts.
Before I get to the theory of why that is, as given to me this week by a landscaper friend of mine, let me share why even this practice requires yet another layer of best practice to be truly effective.
While Durham has dawdled, some cities are closing in on fulfilling a goal to plant 1 million new trees. The movement stems from a goal by then Republican Vice President George Bush in 1991 encouraging Americans to plant 30 million trees.
He was bucking popular members of his party and some Democrats who had the convoluted notion that trees cause pollution. In some cases they can, but science before and since has clarified that trees are crucial to regulating climate.
Deforestation hawks eventually undermined the initiative but it inspired many cities and states to take up the cause. Tree hawks eventually stalled state initiatives but many cities forge ahead.
Most notable is New York City which faced much more daunting challenges than others.
Many cities were doomed when they tried to do it on the cheap using only donations and volunteers while failing to factor in ongoing maintenance.
However, NYC began with research in 2006 and 2007 to quantify both its municipal trees as well as the overall tree canopy across all five boroughs.
Then the city set an ambitious goal to plant a million new trees, 70% of which would be on city property such as along streets and right-of-ways, parks and public housing while rallying another 30% planted by homeowners, landlords, apartment complexes, businesses and non-profits.
But what makes the NY program truly stand out is that it not only incorporated caring for the trees into the initiative but worked with nurseries and growers to provide supplies of quality trees that would be sustainable in order to truly optimize long-term benefit.
An effort this strategic is only possible when elected officials and administrators weave it throughout each agency and department as well as understand the need for intensive, unrelenting data-based marketing communications.
The folks at Deep Root have calculated, in part by using i-Tree, that to plant a million trees using the right kind of trees with proper planting and maintenance will generate a $25 billion return over 50 years compared to a minus $3 billion if done improperly.
Only when leaders grasp that trees are a form of infrastructure is this type of commitment likely.
So why are so many other cities such as Durham failing to catch on or mount a concerted, strategic effort such as New York?
My landscaper friend believes it is we all in general, including elected leaders and administrators, even the one-percenters, make the same strategic mistake at home.
Even rich people put $100,000 into landscaping but then balk at paying a $100 a month for maintenance. These same people also insist on overplanting to create a short term impression and expressing shock when it inevitably must be thinned and then, over time, ages out and must be replaced.
It isn’t just governments that often don’t get it.
While opinion polls in Durham show a high regard for tree canopy, the reality is that we don’t understand nor are we led to understand the true cost of things.
So many taxpayers complained at the $16 million cost of building the Durham Bulls Athletic Park only to be flabbergasted when it costs another $20 million to refresh it after two decades.
Part of the problem is that we, as the general public, don’t get it.
But we also don’t have leaders who deluding themselves don’t educate us. In fact, many play into our ignorance by fostering resentment of government and taxes without revealing that we will be cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Durham leaders may eventually catch on and fully embrace its coveted tree canopy. If and when it does, hopefully we do it right and learn from NYC.
Why is he so grumpy, some readers are probably muttering?
Hey, I spent a good share of my heart and soul defending Durham but that never stopped me from shining a light on areas where I believe we must improve.