Durham’s new tree initiative

Aug. 10, 2013 @ 11:31 AM

Several weeks ago,  staff  from the City, County, federal, higher education and non-profit sectors came together to discuss an important issue that affected each of their organizations in different ways. They had all gathered to discuss the state of Durham’s trees, and what they are doing and could potentially do in the future, to insure that all parts of Durham become or remain  cool, leafy and inviting.

This is important because Durham is starting to lose its big, old and important trees, which are slowly dying and having to be removed from the older parts of town where they were actively planted in the 1930s and 40s.   Also, in some of the “newer” parts of town, where development took place after the era of big civic-minded tree-planting projects, there is hardly any tree canopy to speak of.  The troubling part of this is that the treeless parts of Durham tend to be where our less empowered residents live.  Many treeless areas have higher incidents of childhood respiratory illness, higher incidents of crime, lower property values and higher daytime and night-time temperatures.

We currently “restock” the urban forest in a number of ways. Durham’s Planning Department requires new development to include trees as part of the landscape. The City’s General Services Department has an urban forestry division, and we plant hundreds of trees each fall through spring.  Durham County’s Soil and Water Conservation District has an active program that promotes the purchase, distribution and planting of trees in critical watershed areas and the City’s stormwater division in the Public Works Department has participated in grant programs to plant trees in critical urban watersheds, too. 

In all, it’s estimated that the City and County plant about 1,000 trees per year, which isn’t too shabby, but falls short if you consider a few factors.

Durham’s old willow and water oaks make up less than 20 percent of the city’s street trees, by number.  However, they represent nearly 60 percent of the ecological benefits of  an urban street tree canopy.  When they are replaced, the new trees will never achieve the same presence in the landscape because replacement trees are being selected from species with a smaller size at maturity.  This is due to an overall trend toward trees that are more compatible with an increasingly urbanized and complex landscape. 

Durham’s private landscapes that were installed under previous ordinances and guidelines often include species like Bradford pear, an exotic species with the unfortunate tendency to break apart and reproduce prolifically. Other old required landscape trees were poorly selected, installed or maintained, and do not provide many environmental benefits.  Renewing these landscapes is not a requirement unless the property itself goes through redevelopment. 

In light of these challenges, The City and County have both identified trees as critical components of our collective landscape, and have emphasized their care and replacement in their respective strategic planning initiatives. 

The City/ County’s Sustainability Office has taken the lead role in organizing a series of meetings meant to bring together numerous stakeholders in the organization of a new initiative aimed at increasing the number, health, visibility and proactive maintenance of trees in the city and county.  Expect to hear more about this exciting initiative in the coming months as we plan educational workshops, volunteer opportunities and lots of tree plantings!  Look for updates at www.GreenerDurham.net.

In the meantime, if you are interested in saving your trees from cankerworms, sign up for our Do-It-Yourself Cankerworm Clinic at durhamcankerwormcontrol@gmail.com.  It’s set for 6 p.m. Sept. 3 at Durham’s Cooperative Extension office on Foster Street.   

Alex Johnson is urban forestry manager for the City of Durham.