Durable though trees might appear to be, an urban canopy that has taken generations to reach maturity can be destroyed in a matter of weeks or days -- even moments. Whether the destructive force is a natural or man-made disaster, neighborhoods and entire communities can be left to deal with dramatically altered, often rubble-strewn urban forests that have suddenly gone grey.
Successful restoration of these devastated green spaces usually involves cooperative planning and execution by local government and community re-greening groups. Designing a program that will result in a more resilient urban forest requires expertise in arboriculture, and a tested model on which to build a master plan; executing the re-greening campaign calls for public education, an engaged volunteer force, and (needless to say) adequate funding.
Where major disasters are concerned, the actual scope of the re-greening project also needs to be considered. An urban forest is not limited to public property, but also encompasses private and commercial landscapes great and small. In the aggregate, all of these sectors serve similar functions: to help cool the urban heat-island; filter air pollutants; provide sound barriers, shade, and wildlife habitat; and contribute aesthetic qualities that are beneficial to human populations. In addition, conjoined sectors work together to create a more viable urban forest ecosystem than exists when green spaces function as separate islands. Therefore, as much as is practicable during re-greening, special consideration should be given to interfacing private with public green spaces through collective planning and public education.
Finding a Beginning
The complexities of restoring devastated green spaces can seem overwhelming for individuals and communities struggling to cope with large swaths of destruction. Often, the learning curve required to get a handle on precisely what needs to be done and how to accomplish that is steep indeed. But if there is a bright spot in any disaster, it is that in all likelihood a similar event has already occurred in some other location. Communities that have come back from catastrophic ice storms or hurricanes or conflicts that felled entire urban forests have a wealth of experience with what does and does not work -- and in general they are ready and willing to share their hard-won knowledge.
Any community can benefit from networking with municipal governments in other cities that have experienced similar forms of disasters, as well as with umbrella organizations such as the Alliance for Community Trees [ACT], which can help an urban re-greening effort find focus and direction (not to mention funding). And a state's urban forestry coordinator can bring a deep knowledge of arboriculture to the table that is priceless during any pre- or post-disaster planning related to the urban forest, and should be high among experts consulted.
By making these important connections, ACT Executive Director Alice Ewen points out, communities new to the process "can shortcut their way through a lot of questions they might have about how to set up a [re-greening] program."
Following a disaster, re-greening cannot begin until hazard control and debris removal is complete. Controlling costs during this phase can leave a community better positioned to deal with financing issues associated with re-greening.
The best initial step leads to the state's urban forest coordinator, and should be taken immediately after the disaster. An urban forest coordinator can provide assistance in qualifying for the maximum amount of Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] assistance possible for debris cleanup. This can "make a huge difference financially to a community," according to Alice Ewen, noting the case of storm-stricken Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because foresters were at the table from the beginning when real costs associated with local tree removals and hauling fees were being discussed, hundreds of thousands more in FEMA recovery dollars were identified. Such a reduction in disaster cleanup costs can leave a community financially better able to move forward into the re-greening phase.
In the immediate, often chaotic aftermath of a disaster, the concept of building resilience into the urban forest, much less into the populace, can seem downright esoteric. And yet, green spaces that are lacking in resilience are more vulnerable to experiencing repeated damage on a significant scale in the future, again sending financial and emotional reverberations through the community. So building in resilience can and should begin as soon as possible, especially when it comes to public enlightenment.
Urban forests are threatened not just by natural and man-made assaults; they also are imperiled by neglect and an all-too-common fundamental ignorance of the basic needs of trees and other important elements of green spaces. These latter shortcomings can (and often do) have direct bearings on the severity of damage that a disaster inflicts upon a community's living canopy. But aside from the funding, logistics, and execution of re-greening, making the public aware of the significance and needs of the urban forest is a linchpin for creating resilient greens paces that can in turn help to build resilience in the community.
Natural disasters tend to take their greatest toll upon weak, diseased, or poorly cared for trees. By contrast, healthy, well-maintained specimens are better able to withstand onslaughts, tend to suffer less-severe injuries under circumstances that can devastate less robust trees, and have a better chance of rebounding from injures that do occur. Since a mature tree takes far less time to recover from injuries than is required to grow a new one of comparable size, pre-disaster preventive-health measures can speed the post-disaster re-greening process. Therefore, investments in educating populations to be better tree stewards can go a long way toward preventing or minimizing disasters in the urban forest, as well as in creating more durable green spaces where devastation has occurred.
• Local governments can set their own houses in order even before disasters strike by insuring that municipal and utility crews receive adequate training in the proper care of trees in public spaces and rights-of-way. This includes practicing accepted pruning methods (thus eliminating unnecessary mutilation and weakening of trees, a too-common occurrence with street-side plantings beneath power lines). But stewards of the urban forest also need a basic knowledge of arboriculture ranging from watering wisely, to protecting tree root zones from pedestrian and vehicular traffic, to selecting proper species for growing beneath power lines.
• Landscape maintenance companies that care for commercial and residential properties often extend their services to tree and shrub manicuring. Distributing basic arboriculture information to those companies that do not employ certified arborists can help prevent topping, over-fertilization, improper application of mulch, and other mal-practices that can weaken trees.
• On an individual level, engaged, socially responsible citizens are crucial to building and maintaining vibrant, resilient urban green spaces.
Prevention also involves proactive information that will be helpful in the event of a future disaster. Even before a catastrophic ice storm destroyed thousands of trees in Norman, Oklahoma, city forester Janay Greenlee sent out a flyer to each household cautioning against the topping of trees. Though some trees were never the less topped by unskilled tree trimmers who converged on the stricken city following the disaster, Greenlee's information blast undoubtedly saved many other salvageable specimens from being further weakened or destroyed.
Basic arboriculture programs offered to the public on an on-going basis -- taught by city or state urban foresters, cooperative extension offices, and arborists -- can result in a more tree-savvy population that is conscious of and concerned with surrounding green spaces.
And this sort of education cannot begin too early.
Tree People, a nonprofit organization that trains citizen foresters, hosts 10,000 school children annually at its Los Angeles, California facility. There, youngsters from kindergarten on up in age are taught to recognize trees, soil conditions, water-flow issues, and other essentials of forestry. Students who take part in these field trips carry their acquired enthusiasm for trees home with them, and grow up with a fundamental understanding of and appreciation for the urban forest.
But the reality is that, even with early indoctrination, only a small segment of a population will volunteer to become citizen arborists -- and yet, each individual who owns a tree has a stake in the urban forest, for good or bad. Therefore, education of the community at large in basic arboriculture plays a significant role in efforts to build durable green spaces.
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the initial distribution of information serves to alert citizens to potentially lethal dangers ranging from unstable trees to fallen power lines. Many of the same emergency-distribution channels can be used in the coming days, weeks, and months for the delivery of less urgent directives related to cleanup and long-term restoration stages. (Even while cleanup operations are in still progress, issuing pruning and tree-care guidelines can begin to lay the educational groundwork necessary for enhancing the resilience of both the urban forest its human/emotional component.)
In addition, a centralized hub for distributing information and referring inquiries, such as a municipal website or call center, can help avoid the very real prospect that a citizen might track down one piece of useful information (i.e., where to report a tree limb on a power line), but miss all the rest (i.e., the announcement of a tree-pruning clinic; the availability of a list of certified arborists; etc.).
• Many large communities and their associated power companies have disaster policies in place that facilitate the distribution of emergency news releases, including websites updated daily -- more often if necessary. For less prepared communities, maintaining an up-to-date roster of area media contacts can speed the flow of must-know information.
• For communities having pre-established emergency plans in place, early public directives should include instructions as to the preparation and disposal of debris. If debris pickup is not in the plan, directions to a dump site should be provided. As recovery and re-greening programs unfold, citizens should be informed of when and where to expect additional announcements.
• Broadcast, print, and on-line media can be approached to feature basic tips on proper tree assessment and pruning following a disaster. Morning-show broadcasts and other "soft feature" outlets can be encouraged to highlight educational spots on arboriculture. Existing online social-network platforms also can be useful in getting out the word, in addition to local clubs, schools, and organizations.
• All disseminators should be urged to provide links and referrals to original-source information available from authoritative websites, call centers, or direct handouts. This prevents factual distortions that inevitably occur with second and third-hand information.
• Direct mailings such as Janay Greenly's anti-topping flyer can reach every household in a community. These should be designed to be eye-catching and reader-friendly so residents will actually read them!
• Presentations by arborists, foresters, and other experts can carry tree-education out to schools, civic organizations, and neighborhood associations. (Within a month of the 2007 ice storm, Greenlee held a workshop on proper pruning and tree care, including demonstrations and a slide show, attended by more than 100 people.)
The demand for such information can be long-running. "I couldn't tell you how many clubs and organizations I gave my "Ice Storm Recovery" talk to," says Cleveland County Cooperative Extension agent Tracey Payton two years after the storm. "And I'm still answering questions pertaining to replanting and pruning."
Public education is likely to make recovery and re-greening efforts run more smoothly as long as the information is accurate and non-contradictory. To avoid the distribution of inaccurate arboriculture information, guidelines should be prepared by foresters or certified arborists. (Extensive guidelines and information are readily available from USDA Community & Urban Forest Service websites.)
In addition to basic enlightenment on how to properly care for injured trees, citizens also need to be educated about arborists.
Preventing Post-disaster Damage
When widespread devastation occurs in an urban forest, untrained tree-trimmers tend to converge on the community, finding ready customers among traumatized property owners who are anxious for quick fixes. These eager chainsaw wielders often permanently disfigure damaged trees that could have been restored, or they rush to take out potentially salvageable trees altogether.
When evaluating damaged trees, forester Janay Greenlee advises, "First, react with caution. If there isn't a target [for falling limbs], take some time to assess the damage before you have somebody come in and remove the tree." She notes that topping a tree essentially kills it, because it will "never ever be the same."
To prevent contributing man-made damage to an already battered and diminished urban forest, citizens should be urged to hire only certified or registered consulting arborists. (Professional organizations such as the International Society of Arboriculture [ISA] can provide lists of members in each state.) Citizens also should be made aware that, with the exception of unstable limbs and trees, most repairs can wait until an expert arborist becomes available.
For citizens desiring to repair their own trees, classes led by arborists or foresters can demonstrate proper arboriculture practices. (At one such event, Tracey Payton also handed out lists of certified arborists and locally suitable species of replacement trees, as well as free trees supplied by the state forestry department.)
As the old saying goes: Confusion is the enemy of progress. When chaos prevails, as is so often the case in the depths of sudden rubble, coordination between government agencies and other public and private entities helps to reduce duplicate efforts, as well as eliminate informational "holes," which one entity might assume that another is filling.
For example, if two departments hold separate tree-pruning clinics within a given period, the likely result is that the two events will either split the prospective attendees, or one will get the lion's share. By joining forces and sharing facilities, personnel, website referrals, and publicity capacity, precious resources can be utilized more efficiently and economically.
Building a Green Army
A vigorous volunteer force is financially and logistically essential for any major re-greening program in a red zone. Unfortunately, most communities have few if any organized volunteer programs for their urban forests, much less urban forestry programs in their governing structures. And where rudimentary volunteer programs do exist, proper training can be deficient.
At the opposite end of the scale, Tree People, with its well-honed model for training and managing volunteers, boasts 8,000 citizen foresters. Chris Imhoff, Director of Education and Program Development, runs a one-day workshop to train new recruits. "And then the Citizen Forester works directly with an assigned Forestry Manager depending on the type of tree planting they are doing (school, street, park)."
The value of such volunteers can be huge. "It probably saves you fifty percent on your costs," says Greg Levine, Program Director of Trees Atlanta in Atlanta Georgia. "Plus you get extra buy-in from the volunteers" who plant and then take care of the trees.
Building a green army before a disaster strikes insures that trained volunteers and their supervisors will have the experience and organization needed to bring off a large, sustained re-greening effort. Toward that end, organizations such as Tree People engage in weekly events to keep their volunteers engaged and proficient.
Scouts, civic clubs, schools, and other groups that "adopt" specific projects can gain important publicity for re-greening programs, which can in turn attract additional volunteers. Also, adopting a specific tree, park, or street personalizes the effort, helping to keep enthusiasm and energy piqued for the longer haul of a city-wide re-greening program. (Youngsters in particular make passionate recruits, according to Chris Imhoff. "They love to volunteer.")
But building a green army can present a paradox: Veteran organizers such as Greg Levine have learned that one of the best ways to recruit volunteers is to first have them. For one thing, volunteers commonly recruit other volunteers from among friends and co-workers. And there is visibility in numbers. "We have two or three volunteer projects every Saturday." With volunteers togged out in Trees Atlanta t-shirts, "You're marketing yourself by doing work."
Obviously, large re-greening projects require an abundance of helping hands. But an added advantage of having large numbers of volunteers is that the more experienced citizen foresters can step up to supervise and train new recruits. Chris Imhoff has found that this "upward mobility" can help keep volunteers more interested in participation. So the process of recruitment, training, and utilization becomes, to a certain extent, self-perpetuating.
(To maintain keen interest, Tree People also sends out a monthly newsletter, which includes lists of upcoming events. The organization's website enables volunteers to sign up for specific projects with the click of a button.)
But creating a vibrant green army from scratch can be a struggle. As Janay Greenlee knows first-hand, "When it comes to establishing a volunteer program, it takes someone full-time" to coordinate the effort -- something that many communities and small non-profit re-greening groups cannot afford. As a one-person city forestry department, Greenlee is spread too thin to tackle recruitment and management of volunteers on her own. So she is focusing her efforts toward establishing a core volunteer group that will in turn establish and manage a full-fledged volunteer program.
The Renaissance Canopy
Urban forests tend to evolve along with their communities, which can result in patchwork green spaces of varying quality as new developments arise and cities sprawl. Re-greening presents an opportunity for a community or neighborhood to improve upon major elements of its tree canopy on many levels. For example, the integration of private landscapes and community green spaces, forming green connections rather than green islands, can produce more viable wildlife habitat. And the natural culling (by the disaster) of diseased and aged trees makes room for the planting of healthy and in many cases more suitable species. In addition, a more tree-savvy population enhances the likelihood that the resilient Renaissance canopy will become an enduring component of a more resilient community as a whole.
But green spaces don't just happen, and devastated green spaces don't simply regenerate, without firm guidance and well-conceived goals that effectively manage all available resources. A community with a strong urban forest management program has a built-in capacity to meet challenges when disasters occur. But even those with weak or non-existent programs can avail themselves of a wide array of resources to assist them in re-greening efforts.
The restoration of disaster-ravaged green spaces can require years, even decades, to complete. In cases where an urban forest has been totally wiped out, such as in some parts of post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans, a restoration plan presents the tremendous challenge of a clean slate upon which trees will require many generations to achieve anything like their former canopy. But disasters of that magnitude are relatively rare, and in most cases a restoration program can build upon a base of "survivor trees."
(Even in difficult economic times, major restoration campaigns can be amazingly successful. When hurricanes destroyed 10,000 trees in Orlando, Florida in 2004, the city launched an ambitious five-year program to raise funds to replace 10,000 Trees by 2010. In the depths of a severe economic recession, the 10,000th tree was ceremoniously planted on December 17th, 2009.)
To be sure, there is no one-size-fits-all program applicable to every neighborhood, city, or region. But many of the basic tools necessary to begin and carry forward re-greening can be universally employed. On a purely logistical level (getting trees in the ground), an extensive urban re-greening effort requires cooperative efforts between the city forester (if one exists), the tree supplier (private or government nursery), the parks planning and public works departments (insuring that any local tree ordinances are adhered to), and volunteer groups.
But none of these can do their work without financing.
When a community has suffered the loss of a significant number of trees, locating funding for replacements and associated expenses becomes a major hurdle. But for communities prepared to crank up fund-raising efforts, assistance is available in the form of grants, matching grants, and outright donations from public and private sectors. (A volunteer or staff member who is proficient at writing grant proposals can be a great asset to a community in search of funding.) Because no single funding well is likely to produce the total monies required for a bold re-greening program, a healthy mix of government, corporate, and private sources is advisable.
"There's really very little national money out there for local projects," says Alice Ewen of ACT. But a state urban forest coordinator can apprise a community of any government re-greening funds that might be available, including possible matching grants through the US Forestry Service's Urban & Community Forestry Program. And some municipal governments can contribute significantly. In some cases, community urban forest organizations "that have been around for awhile have thirty to fifty percent [of their funding] in local government contracts, which they may consider as grants, but they are essentially fee-for-service contracts."
Non-profit umbrella organizations such as ACT can be valuable sources of information and guidance. "They help share information and experiences with other like groups," says Greg Levine, Program Director for ACT-member Trees Atlanta, "help get us funding, and keep us connected to federal tree advocacy and funding opportunities."
Besides their extensive networking benefits, such umbrella organizations and foundations serve as clearing houses, matching communities with corporations and other entities that are looking for projects to fund. For example, with grants through its Global ReLeaf Fund, American Forests has helped plant tens of millions of trees throughout the United States and around the globe, including in the war-ravaged city of Sarajevo where urban trees had to be felled for firewood. And the Apache Corporation, through its Apache Foundation Tree Grant Program, planted its millionth tree in 2009, and is committed to planting millions more. (Following the 2007 ice storm in Norman, Oklahoma, the Apache Foundation contributed around 4,000 trees to the community's re-greening efforts.)
Local Businesses and Fund Raisers
Corporate participation can provide large-scale funding (which is often but not always made available in cooperation with non-profit organizations). After a tornado tore through Atlanta, Georgia in 2008, Home Depot promptly donated $36,000 for tree restoration, including replacing 160 trees that were felled in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. The local Home Depot store also provided a number of employees to help plant the trees. (Besides gaining positive publicity, some companies like to use hands-on tree planting events to build team cooperation among employees.)
By sponsoring tree purchases for a neighborhood park or a city street, or contributing materials or workers for re-greening projects, local businesses -- especially those wishing to foster a "green" image -- have much to gain in publicity (which translates into high-profile advertising) and social goodwill.
Fund raisers involving local businesses, schools, and civic organizations can provide significant funds for re-greening programs. Contributors can be encouraged to donate to a central coffer, or to adopt a park, street, or even an individual tree planting. (With adoption programs, citizens often tend to become more dedicated to planting and maintaining restoration projects, especially in their own neighborhoods. As Chris Imhoff of Tree People puts it, "They're replanting their homes.")
But in addition to raising funds to meet major restoration goals, Alice Ewen recommends that "you should be thinking of ways to encourage people to take their own voluntary action in their front yards. So you're investing resources in communicating, and then people are using their own money and sweat equity to execute the tree planting in their front yard."
Neighborhood associations have the built-in organization necessary to raise funds for re-greening their own streets following a disaster. For example, at a time when Norman, Oklahoma's public and private spaces were being re-greened at an annual rate of eight trees per day, the city forester provided neighborhood associations with street-side planting stock in batches of from 35 to 150 trees each, which the associations paid for with buy-ins from individual homeowners. "The idea is that they plant the trees themselves," says Janay Greenlee, rather than needing city workers to do the job. (In most cases, the associations hired landscapers to do the planting.)
Members of a community's green army can be adept at finding donors in the private sector, according to Greg Levine at Tree Atlanta. In the process, they don't overlook themselves. "Some of our biggest donors are volunteers."
The cost of acquiring desirable replacement stock is only part of the equation. Other expenses include transporting and storing trees; providing planting equipment (either hand tools or heavy equipment, depending on tree size); and ongoing maintenance of the trees to insure their long-term survival. The use of municipal equipment and facilities exclusively puts a drain on local economies that might be already stressed by disaster-recovery expenses. Therefore, successfully soliciting the loan of equipment, storage space, and other logistical support from local businesses can reduce re-greening costs that otherwise must be borne entirely by the municipality and its taxpayers. (Public recognition of such donations is an important motivating factor -- again, businesses stand to gain desirable positive publicity from their generosity.)
Resilient Species for Resilient Communities
In the process of re-greening a red zone, the urban forest can not only be physically restored, it can be improved upon with the judicious choice of replacement species. This quality upgrade in great part involves the identification and selection of tree species that will best tolerate local climate and soil conditions, as well as stand up to commonplace urban stressors such as heat islands, air pollution, and restricted root zones, to name but a few. Consideration also should be given to potential climate trends that could increase instances and intensities of flooding, drought, and other extremes -- and to more predictable problems such as overhead power lines.
• Establishing an extensive list of locally desirable species and varieties makes it easier for public projects and private citizens to select species that are best able to thrive under local conditions. Extensive list is the operative phrase. The broader the selection, the more likely it is that an urban forest will contain a healthy diversity is to exist in the urban forest. (Just one benefit of diversity is that a pathogen that attacks a single species can do less widespread damage when it is unable to communicate itself via a high concentration of its host species in a given area.) In Atlanta's post-tornado re-greening, around 80 different species and varieties were chosen to replace trees destroyed by the tornado in 2008.
Assistance in preparing lists of locally-desirable species is available from state urban forest coordinators, and cooperative extension offices.
• Lists of locally undesirable species will help re-greeners avoid mistakenly planting trees that are messy; locally invasive; vulnerable to climate, disease, or pest invasions; or that have other objectionable qualities.
• Always consider available natural resources when preparing species lists. For example, in regions that experience frequent or chronic water shortages, planting drought-resistant native species can result in substantial reductions in water usage -- an issue of growing urgency in the maintenance of green spaces worldwide.
• The utilitarian value of trees and shrubs in filtering sunlight, pollution, noise, and unsightly urban views cannot be overemphasized during the selection process.
• Food production also rates consideration, especially when community food gardens are included in the re-greening plan. Toward that end, the California-based Fruit Tree Foundation has planted productive trees on at least four continents, including scores of citrus and persimmon trees in post-Katrina New Orleans.
• Choosing higher quality trees is just as important as opting for higher quality roof shingles -- to a degree, durability and likely longevity trump price. So along with promoting the selection of desirable tree species, discouraging the proliferation of cheap, popular, low-durability discount-store species can go a long way toward developing a more durable tree population. (If citizens can be educated to spurn such readily-available undesirable species, local outlets are more likely to supply planting stock that will enhance rather than diminish the resilience of the urban canopy.)
But selecting the best possible species for a site can come to naught if proper planting and long-term maintenance procedures are not followed. So education in those techniques is crucial for any regreening program.
Planting and More
Whether municipal employees or volunteer citizens are used for installation work, major tree-planting projects require a large number of hands. As a point of reference, Tree People uses a 3 to 4-member crew for planting 15-gallon trees. For a project involving 30 trees of that size, 50 to 100 volunteers (2 trees per team) are commonly enlisted. Tree planting is arduous work, so planting sessions are usually limited to 2 to 2 1/2 hours to keep from burning out the volunteers.
When untrained volunteers are used, special attention should be given to assuring that proper planting procedures are followed (i.e., each tree is planted at the proper depth and watered in, and a top-dressing of compost or mulch is applied to the bed). These instructions are a must for giveaway programs when trees are handed out to citizens.
But even at the end of a satisfying day of urban reforestation, the work has only just begun. Following plantings by its Citizen Foresters, the tree-care department at Tree People continues to work with volunteers to insure that the trees are properly maintained. According to Chris Imhoff, "For five years, we are committed to those trees until we 'graduate' them."
Five years of monitoring just to get the transplants established and thriving. (During this period, volunteers who can keep tabs on designated groups of new trees to make certain they are properly watered and cared for are invaluable.)
So when is a re-greened urban forest capable of fully sustaining itself without constant vigilance? Never. Throughout its long, ever-evolving existence, an urban forest is subject to myriad natural and man-made stressors. Part of the resilience of urban green spaces lies in their engineered-in ability to weather those stressors, and the willingness of municipal and private tree stewards to remain vigilant and engaged in their defense.
Closing the Circle
Green spaces provide the living scenery of urban life, and any disaster that diminishes the urban forest diminishes the lives of everyone who resides there. The complicated and costly process of restoration is an exercise of decades and generations -- but the incremental transformation of a community from grey to green can begin to reveal itself as the earliest efforts literally and figuratively take root.
Throughout the restoration program, whether re-greened spaces will have the durability to survive the next onslaught will be in great part dependent upon the educated choices made in conceiving and carrying forward the transformation process. The potential reward can be great: Success will serve to enhance the inherent resilience of both the urban forest and its inseparable human/emotional component.
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