Street Trees And Re-establishing An Urban Canopy

In part one of my posts related to curb appeal and environmental sustainability, I discussed a "Milkweed for Monarchs" project undertaken by the Fox Park Neighborhood Association in 2015.

In this post, I will share my personal connection to a street tree project recently completed in the same neighborhood. I joined the Fox Park Neighborhood Association for a one year term through 2015. The board was looking for projects to bring to the general membership that would benefit the neighborhood in a meaningful way.  Several proposals were weighed including the median project mentioned previously, a sidewalk replacement project and finally a street tree replacement project.

The neighborhood had been seeking upgrades to the medians for years, so that was a no-brainer. The other two options took some research.

It started with some simple observations of the neighborhood.  Walking the streets and auditing the sidewalk situation and the largest contiguous stretches of streets without trees.  The sidewalks were ruled out after receiving a couple cost prohibitive bids, so we focused on street trees.

Why are trees an asset to the neighborhood?  Well, the benefits to the public, property owner and pedestrian along the sidewalk are indisputable and well documented.  One of my favorite reads on the subject is from Dan Burden's "22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees" published in 2006.  Burden is a Senior Urban Designer at Glatting-Jackson Architectural and Design Firm in collaboration with Walkable Coummunities, Inc.

In short, here's the list of 22 reasons urban street are a benefit to any city:

  1. Reduced and more appropriate urban traffic speeds. 
  2. Create safer walking environments
  3. Trees call for placemaking planting strips and medians,
  4. Increased security
  5. Improved business
  6. Less drainage infrastructure.
  7. Rain, sun, heat and skin protection
  8. Reduced harm from tailpipe emissions
  9. Gas transformation efficiency
  10. Lower urban air temperatures
  11. Lower ozone
  12. Convert streets, parking and walls into more aesthetically pleasing environments
  13. Soften and screen necessary street features such as utility poles, light poles and other needed street furniture
  14. Reduced blood pressure, improved overall emotional and psychological health
  15. Time in travel perception
  16. Reduced road rage
  17. Improved operations potential
  18. Added value to adjacent homes, businesses and tax base
  19. Provides a lawn for a splash and spray zone, storage of snow, driveway elevation transition and more
  20. Filtering and screening agent
  21. Longer pavement life
  22. Connection to nature and the human senses

Pretty impressive, eh...there is something on that list for everyone from the environmentalist to the staunch libertarian.  As I said, these benefits are pretty universal and many are backed by empirical data vs. subjective or academic reasoning, which adds to the rock solid line of evidence that street trees are a benefit to all.

Take for instance #6:

"Trees absorb the first 30% of most precipitation through their leaf system, allowing evaporation back into the atmosphere. This moisture never hits the ground. Another percentage (up to 30%) of precipitation is absorbed back into the ground and taken in and held onto by the root structure, then absorbed and then transpired back to the air. Some of this water also naturally percolates into the ground water and aquifer. Storm water runoff and flooding potential to urban properties is therefore reduced."

You can read up on all 22 reasons HERE.

Anyhow, here is how we went about our project. Each year the various wards throughout the city are allotted funds that can be spent largely at the discretion of the elected alderperson. In our case, we have a great working relationship with the alderperson, Christine Ingrassia, and she helped fund a street tree audit of the city's sixth ward. This will go a long way in understanding where to invest in trees in the future. We asked Ingrassia to help us navigate the system and make contact with the correct departments in the city.

For this particular project, the neighborhood association had some funds saved up from various fund raising campaigns and we wanted to show our commitment to getting Fox Park back in the tree game by making a purchase of trees directly from our organization's treasury.

Next we had to do some homework to bring a plan to the Board and then to the general membership for a vote.

We started by investigating available species. We went to the Missouri Botanical Garden's wonderful website to select species that are low maintenance, drought resistant and have low pedestrian trip-causing debris (e.g., acorns, gumballs)

The city also has a list of trees that they recommend:

We narrowed it down to three species including the ginko, Freeman maple and blackgum. Ginko's were voted down on the off chance that female trees (you only order males) could find their way into the supply chain and females produce the 

butyric acid-laden fruits which are quite foul smelling (that doesn't stop my dog from eating them like Skittles).

So we set a meeting with the city's Forestry Department to share our intentions and develop a game-plan to help us identify the species, associated cost, locations within the neighborhood and the logistics of ordering the trees and getting them planted.  So, our alderperson, the head of Forestry, the Urban Forester and two other certified arborists on staff were kind enough to sit down with us in April and talk trees and help plot out our path. We had the following questions:

1. species availability

2. height and trunk diameter available

3. planting instructions/location suggestions within Fox Park

4  what is needed from us?

5. next steps and other feedback from forestry

Turns out the arborists liked our choices for species and said either would work. We decided upon the blackgum as it is a hearty native that does well in clay soils and has colorful fall foliage and  has very little debris.


 Nyssa sylvatica 

Per the Missouri Botanical Garden, blackgum are a "plant of merit" and categorized as low maintenance and "tried and trouble-free".  The species selection was a go.

Forestry explained the process. They would be responsible for:

  • site assessment
  • recommendations for any box cuts (taking a saw and cutting ~6 inches off the sidewalks) to create more space for the tree
  • receiving and holding the trees from the nursery until time for planting in late 2015
  • planting

The cost for each 2-2.5 inch diameter tree was $140.00, all above labor included.

Forestry agreed to send out a staff arborist to help us identify ideal planting locations.

Now that we had an understanding of the process and associated costs, we took the details back to the board who agreed to propose the purchase of 20 trees to the neighborhood's general membership for a vote.

We then took the plan to a neighborhood meeting for a vote. The general membership voted unanimously in support of the project.

We were on our way.

In July, on what must have been one of the hottest days of the year, we met with one of the city's arborists to walk the neighborhood and select some good sites.

There was some heavy construction throughout some parts of the neighborhood, including Oregon Street and Magnolia Avenue, so we avoided those areas.  We also had to avoid some obvious obstacles such as utility lines.

We expresses an interest in having this first planting be in a high profile, high traffic zone. We wanted a large contiguous stretch that currently had NO trees to help make the biggest impact of a planting. The 2700 block of Russell Boulevard immediately came to mind as this is likely one of the most traveled east-west corridors in Fox Park.

Dan the arborist made his recommendations, a small group of board members concurred and we marked twenty planting sites with orange spray paint for the next step in the process: box cuts.

Depending on the width of ground between the street and the sidewalk, cutting the sidewalk could be necessary to give the trees enough space to grow.

This work was carried out by the city:

Then, we just had to wait for the weather to cool off, typically around October or November.

Well I was lucky enough to be on Russell and Ohio the day the Forestry Dept. workers delivered our trees to get some photos and thank the guys that did the truly hard work...the digging.

Here's the result of their hard work and the dedication and support of our local alderperson and neighborhood association.

Hopefully the neighborhood has shown that we are committed to reaping the benefits that urban street trees provide and we'll see the next generation of neighborhood leadership continue this worthy pursuit.

And if you were one of the lucky neighbors to have a tree planted in front of your abode, please consider helping establish these beauties by providing plenty of water.

Cheers, Fox Park! You are better looking and healthier today than you were a year ago.