Growing the Urban Tree Canopy
Trees deliver tremendous bang for the buck. They produce oxygen, encourage walking, filter out air pollution, slow traffic, absorb rainwater and noise, improve property value and reduce people’s stress levels. A healthy urban forest is a remarkably valuable asset for Downtown and the city.
The Community Goal
Recognizing the benefits of a healthy urban forest and tree canopy, the City of Grand Rapids in 2009 established the goal of achieving 40 percent tree canopy citywide. The "tree canopy" is the proportion of land area covered by trees as viewed with satellite imagery. As of 2015, the tree canopy citywide approximately 34 percent. To achieve the 40 percent canopy goal, the community must plant an additional 1,640 acres of canopy on approximately 7.000 acres of possible planting area.
The Downtown Tree Canopy
To support and advance on the community's 40 percent goal, Downtown Grand Rapids established the goal of achieving 10 percent canopy by 2025. The canopy was 5 percent, or approximately 2,800 trees, as of 2015. Achieving the 10 percent goal Downtown basically requires doubling the number of trees Downtown.
DGRI and partners planted 126 trees in Fiscal Year 2016, moving Downtown 4.5 percent closer to the neighborhood goal.
DGRI and partners will plant at least 200 goals in Fiscal Year 2015.
Among Grand Rapids neighborhoods, Downtown is the most sparsely canopied, with only 5 percent tree canopy.
The relative lack of trees is due to a number of factors, including legacy land uses and the intensity of development. Currently, only 5 percent of the land Downtown is dedicated to parks and open space. Parking lots, commercial, industrial and institutional land uses collectively make up 80 percent. These land uses limit opportunities for new planting and often result in sub-optimal conditions for tree health, including the standard 5’ x 5’ tree wells, which offer inadequate soil volume to support healthy tree growth.
Maintenance of urban trees also is often challenging. Exposed to the urban elements, newly planted trees need regularly scheduled watering, fertilizer and structural pruning during the first years after planting. Unfortunately this maintenance is sometimes overlooked when new trees are planted, but is nonetheless critical to ensuring healthy tree growth.
Tree planting and maintenance in Downtown also regularly involves multiple organizations, including various departments in the City of Grand Rapids, the Michigan Department of Transportation, entities responsible for above- and below-ground utilities, and adjacent property owners. Responding to the needs and requirements of each stakeholder, and ensuring proper tree maintenance, requires considerable and persistent collaborative effort and ongoing communication.
Despite existing conditions and challenges, numerous opportunities to enhance the urban forest Downtown exist. A 2015 street tree inventory revealed 195 vacant tree wells and sidewalks suitable for trees Downtown. Planting these vacant spaces would significantly add to the existing Downtown canopy and DGRI is actively working with partners to get the work done.
In addition to the vacant spaces, retrofits and installation of new infrastructure could enable further maturation of the existing canopy, and provide additional planting space. Connected soil trenches, permeable pavement, infiltration basins, and raised planter beds are all ways to ensure proper soil volume and water is available for new trees. Living walls and green roofs can also be integrated into the existing urban environment and further support the growth of the urban forest.
Changes in Downtown land use also will provide further planting opportunities. Numerous proposed projects in Downtown, many along the Grand River, aspire to convert underutilized land into open space and natural amenities for the growing resident, worker and visitor populations. These changes provide solid opportunities for building in green infrastructure to grow both the urban forest and tree canopy Downtown.
The Agenda for Action
Based on the existing opportunities, GR Forward established the goal of achieving a 10 percent tree canopy in Downtown by 2025. To help meet that ambitious target, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. commits to:
- Plant at least 200 trees in FY 2017.
- Preserve the existing Downtown canopy with continued maintenance and protection against tree removal.
- Pilot infrastructure enhancements to provide adequate soil volume for mature tree growth;
- Revise existing incentive programs to provide opportunities for investors to add green infrastructure, including trees, living walls and green roofs on private property; and
- Continue convening Downtown organizations to work collaboratively toward the community's tree canopy goals.
Improving the urban forest and significantly increasing tree canopy in Downtown will require years of investment in infrastructure improvements and many new trees. While the initial costs are significant, the long term maintenance costs are not. Once adequate soil volumes are in place, and coordinated with smart storm water management strategies, the Downtown urban forest will be a sustainable amenity that delivers numerous social, environmental and economic benefits for generations to come.