Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Planting Place-Based Assets

I’m blessed to be surrounded by more than 110 trees on my tiny lot near downtown Durham, North Carolina but as of last Thursday there are two less.  That’s right, I “clear cut” two trees.

It is called “thinning,” and  I do this once a year to keep my private forest healthy.  At the same time, four or five new tree naturally regenerate and on average, I plant one or two new trees each year.

The ones that were thinned last week were trash trees crowding out a healthier specimen while making the shade too dense for understory shrubs and trees.  Thinning is as important to an urban forest such as Durham’s as tree planting is and even more essential in an urbanized environment.

With a friend, I try to walk an extra 10 miles each week.  I also motorcycle on various routes through both the city and county.   This gives me a leisurely opportunity to observe Durham’s urban forest and how it works.

The terrain in my neighborhood is particularly hilly and forested.  In fact, the tree canopy in Durham, which is 40% citywide and 51% countywide, is a pivotal part of the community’s unique sense of place and appeal.

By  comparison, only 62.6% of the entire State of North Carolina remains forested.

A community’s unique sense of place is comprised of a distinct blend of three categories of place-based assets.  One category of assets are nature-related including a community’s rocks and geology, wildlife and parks, trees and vegetation, rivers and lakes and overall terrain.

Another category of place-based assets is cultural including the heritage, history and socio-economic make-up of a place.  The third category is “built” including architectural character, use of building materials such as brickwork, neighborhood personalities and public spaces.

Every community or state has these general categories, so sense of place isn’t about being unique as much as it is about weaving, preserving and blending these three categories of place-based assets into a distinctive whole.

This isn’t about replicating other places or emulation or erecting palaces.  It is all about working within the inherent place-based assets of a community to reveal and amplify its almost temporal personality as it has evolved over time.

The objective isn’t to achieve universal appeal but to seek to be genuine, indigenous and authentic.  Durham has had numerous caretakers who understood this over the over nearly 200 years.

Communities that make the effort have a shot of having a “there, there.”  Those that dismiss the importance of place or fail to guard it end up in the words of Dr. Scott Russell Sanders, “feeling more like jumbles than communities.”

The former have more appeal and potential for visitors, newcomers and economic vitality.  For the latter, “tourism devolves into only a form of shopping.”

I spent two decades of my now-concluded career in visitor-centric cultural and economic development, protecting, preserving and promoting Durham’s sense of place.  So I step softly while noting that overall, it seems some here are much too complacent - if not inconsistent - about protecting and fostering its sense of place.

And in no area does this show more than in upkeep and preservation of its urban forest, although through no fault of those directly involved day-to-day.

I don’t just mean street trees that line the roadways that make up 80% of its public space or its 2,700 acres of forested parkland or the tree “deserts” revealed on images via Google Earth.  I am also  referring to much-needed thinning of understory growth on public and private property forestland, where it remains.

Within the city limits, Durham has less than 1.4 acres of trees remaining for every acre of impervious surface.  County-wide, Durham desperately needs to get serious about a program to compensate for the covering over in development of an average of 2.5 acres a day since 1976. (source: RENCI Growth Mapping)

That average is forecast to be increasing to 3.91 acres a day between now and 2040, and a far greater proportion than that is cleared of trees for each development.

The fact that Durham’s ratio of acreage of tree canopy to acreage of impervious surface will soon be barely 1 to 1 must become of great concern to more than just those charged slowing storm run-off.

Durham was recently selected to host one of seven Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Networks, and I’m sure officials are pouring over the TED report released last week entitled 7 Ways Our Cities Will Change.

Meanwhile, a crucial element of our sense of place is quietly disappearing.

I was born in 1948, during a 10-year lull between two incredible national tree-planting initiatives.  From the mid-1930s until the mid-1940s, Americans planted 2.3 million trees a year.  Then from 1956 to 1961, they planted another 2.2 million trees a year.

According to Dr. Neil Maher’s book entitled Nature’s New Deal, many on the ideological right were opposed to such programs because they feared the places the workers stayed while planting the trees would be a haven for Communists to infiltrate the working class.

Privately, the fear on the right, as it is today over the Affordable Care Act may have been more that the success of these problems would foster dependencies and fatten constituencies for Democrats.  Reasonable but as it is today, a bit paranoid.

Instead, these encampments turned out to not only provide a strategic solution to some big over-arching problems at the time by providing a “hand up” instead of a “hand out,” but as Maher documents, they simultaneously aided the Americanization of millions of immigrants.

Many of Durham’s street trees were planted in the 1930s as part of those programs.

Another national tree planting program was initiated under President Reagan in 1985 to return highly erodible land back into forestland, stream buffers, wildlife habitat, wetland preservation and ground cover after farmers had begun harmful “fence to fence” cultivation of marginal lands.

In 1988, the year before I was recruited to Durham, it resulted in the planting of 3.4 million acres of trees, the highest ever recorded.  In 1990, President H.W. Bush proposed planting a billion trees over a ten year period.

A few years ago, it was estimated that tripling this number annually would be a way to sequester a billion tons of carbon gasses but it would require reforestation or afforestation of a quarter of all undeveloped land in the US.

More than 4-in-10 of the trees planted today are by private property owners but they are often incentivized to do so by state and local officials who plant 7% and National Forests, which are responsible for planting another 6%.

New York City, which is roughly the same land area as Durham County but with thirty times the population, plants 8,000 trees a year, 2,000 street trees alone, and is on its way to planting 1 million new trees.  To date, private partners have planted 250,000 of those trees.

For some, it may seem Durham is doing pretty good to plant 1,000 trees a year but keep in mind how hard it is for New York, compared to Durham, to find places to plant 8,000 new trees each year.  The goal shouldn’t be calibrated to keep up but for Durham to plant enough trees here to replace several acres being lost each day.

But part of any goal should be thinning and improving the tree canopy we have.  Trees offer an incredible array of benefits to public health, property values, economic development, crime reduction, air and water quality, soil conservation and many others, but they also must be put in balance.

It isn’t just a question of more trees but needing tall trees with a wide canopy, placed strategically to minimize fragmentation and promote biodiversity with properly spaced clearings to maximize health and regeneration, as well as efforts to efficiently reforest.

A good goal for Durham, broken down into planting on public property, incentivizing and zoning planting of trees on private property along with facilitating natural regeneration would be 100,000 trees a year for a minimum of 10 years but better still, as an ongoing practice.

Sounds like a lot until you realize it will just barely hold the community harmless for tree loss due to development.

No comments: