Supporting trees in Durham

May. 10, 2014 @ 05:54 PM

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Watching trees leaf out, or re-leaf after being munched by canker worms, it seems like the winter of 2014 is finally over and we are poised to enter a restorative southern summer under the shade of our leafy neighbors. 

Although this past season’s planting efforts roughly doubled the previous record for trees being planted through the combined efforts of city and county agencies, I can’t help but feel like there’s more that needs to be done to ensure Durham’s canopy of urban trees is passed along to future generations.

We came to be blessed with this legacy of green infrastructure by the combined efforts of the larger community -- Duke University, City government and civic groups as diverse as neighborhood associations, garden clubs and PTAs all pitched in.

As we enjoy trees for the benefits they bring, we find ourselves tasked with shepherding them into their final years while anticipating what is to come next.

When it comes to the prospect of replacing these big, old trees, there is no single plan to follow. As capital assets, trees tend to lose out as engineers and designers vie for space and budget for their pipes, wires and hardscape on redevelopment plans. Trees often get pushed to the margins or out of the landscape entirely as “value engineering” is applied once cost-overruns are encountered.

An overarching plan for the replacement of Durham’s declining street trees has been elusive for a number of reasons, not least being cost and complexity. In its absence I can offer the next-best thing -- a return to the grass-roots partnership that brought about their installation in the first place. While not as ambitious in scale, planting trees to fill gaps in the canopy will replenish the urban forest, albeit more gradually.

In order for this strategy to be successful, there will need to be more active involvement from the general public, both in funding the program and in linking new trees to acceptable sites in the urban landscape.  

To address the funding question, there is an easy way for you to support planting more trees in Durham. The “Water Into Trees” program allows water customers to contribute through their water bill to a fund that allows the City’s Urban Forestry Division to purchase trees. A portion of these funds will be used this year to purchase trees from a student-run nursery operation at Southern High School, while partnerships are in the works with a goal to achieve the local propagation of native tree species at another area high school. 

The amount you donate is up to you. You can round-up your water bill to the nearest dollar, allowing you to slowly contribute as time goes by, or you can increase your bill each month by a set amount. You can also make a one-time donation with the option to contribute in honor of someone or to commemorate an event.

The other side of the tree planting equation is a little more involved.  We need sites to plant trees, and while there is no shortage of viable locations, we want to plant trees where someone will embrace them and support their growth by providing water during the first few years at their new homes. 

The best way to do this is to organize with your neighbors to increase the scale of the project, which is often done through a neighborhood association.  Urban Forestry staff  members are happy to meet with groups to discuss potential project locations and come up with a plan for the coming planting season. This plan will include a list of potential species, timetables for inputs and some options for size and method of installation, and will involve participants in some aspects of organization and outreach.

Alex Johnson is urban forestry manager in the City of Durham’s General Services Department.