JP Observer: Urban Forest Plan crucial for Boston’s trees

     Everyone who understands the importance of preserving and enhancing the number and well-being of all trees in Boston can be especially happy today, Earth Day, April 22. This year’s Earth Day theme is, appropriately, “Invest in Our Planet.”

     A draft Boston Urban Forest Plan (UFP) released recently by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department (BPRD) is set to be finalized in late spring or early summer, after further input is considered.

     The introduction to the draft plan asks: “Why now?” And answers: “Because Boston is growing and changing; to address equity and environmental justice issues;” and “to mitigate climate change impacts.”

     Another good reason for Boston forest planning now was added on April 13, when Mayor Michelle Wu proposed that $31 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to Boston go to “climate focused investments” including “growing and preserving our urban tree canopy.”

     The draft UFP calls for expanding urban forest now and for 20 years into the future. Devised in a planning process whose first meeting was in July, 2021—the draft defines Boston’s forest as every tree in the city. Just as it doesn’t leave out any kind or size or location, it looks at all aspects of managing the forest on every type of land, no matter who owns or manages it.

     The UFP process is being carried out through an equity-centered Community Advisory Board (CAB) made up of members of three groups: an Equity Council, an Intergovernmental Working Group and Collaborating Partners, with a total CAB membership of more than 60 people. A team of six consultant groups assisted in the planning. BPRD staffer Maggie Owens is the UFP project manager.

     On March 14, a large crowd attended an hour-and-a-half virtual “open house” presentation of the draft Boston UFP.

     Throughout the CAB workshops and planning process, equity has been emphasized, with special attention to people, grassroots organizations, and neighborhoods with fewer trees in “historically excluded and marginalized communities.” Neighborhoods that were red-lined by banks in the past are one example of such “socially vulnerable” communities.

     A tree protection ordinance—supported in principle by the draft UFP—was endorsed by every Boston City Councilor after Councilor Ricardo Arroyo put forward an example of such an ordinance last August. Plans call for considering the ordinance in working sessions of the City Council Committee on Government Operations after the final UFP is published, according to Arroyo’s office.

     The third CAB workshop on October, 21, 2021, discussed tree protection regulations, among other topics. Consultant Jenny Gulick of Urban Canopy Works, LLC described tree protection regulations in general and presented example laws from Boston “peer cities” Atlanta, Austin, and Seattle.

     In an online poll of attendees—a device used frequently in the process—85 percent of 39 voting CAB members said they believe “the existing tree protection regulations [here] need to be strengthened.”

     Regarding regulating tree removal on private property, 54 percent said it should happen “in all instances,” and 38 percent said “just during land development or construction projects.” Three percent were unsure, and none said tree removal on private property shouldn’t be regulated at all.

     The CAB looked at facts—including related general data—and information about our forest, did analysis and discussion, and crafted draft goals that were presented in the 62-pages of UFP materials on March 14.

     About 60 percent of the trees in Boston are on private land, and 40 percent are on public. The city counted 38,273 street trees when doing its first inventory last year. They don’t know the numbers or kinds of others or the total number of all trees.

     A green canopy made up of branches and leaves—another standard way to measure the presence of trees—covers about 27 percent of the city. Coincidentally, in 2021 the Center for Watershed Protection reported that 27 percent is the average coverage for urban areas in the US.

     Boston is fortunate to have a moderately good variety of street tree species, which indicates resilience, according to the UFP materials. Some trees will do better with climate change than others. The rule of thumb is that no species should comprise more than 10 percent of the trees.

     Boston has many more “young” and “establishing” street trees than it has “maturing” and “mature” ones (only about 17 percent of total). Mature trees produce the most benefits.

     Trees are valuable, the materials say, for: cultural reasons, lowering heat in summer, providing better air quality due to lower temperatures, providing stormwater capture and wildlife habitat.

     In addition, though not stated in the draft, studies by Boston University (2021) and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station (2002), among many others, show, to quote the USDA study, “…urban forests can play a critical role in helping combat increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide,” a major cause of harmful global warming.

     Challenges and threats to forest included: degree of tree protection offered; space for tree growth; determining who takes care of trees; how many are protected or planted; skills and resources to take care of them; exposure to stressors such as dog waste, underground infrastructure; people’s feet; land use challenges; storms; floods, droughts, temperature swings; soil compaction, vandalism, and pests.

     Jamaica Plain tops the list of Boston “green neighborhoods” with 44 percent coverage by trees. Given that JP is a peninsula nearly surrounded by large green spaces with the Southwest Corridor Park running through it—not to mention smaller parks and lots of private land with trees on the green space map—it’s no wonder.

     Fortunately for JP and for mature trees around the city, a large part of the UFP deals with caring for and preserving existing trees, especially mature ones.

     Canopy surveys in 2014 and 2019 turned up a trend that calls for everyone to be alert: Neighborhoods with a bigger canopy in 2014 tended to see a slight loss and those with smaller canopy saw a slight gain in canopy during those four years. The plan calls for monitoring changes in the future.

     The other four southwest Boston neighborhoods—Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roslindale and West Roxbury—also have tree canopy that’s more than 30 percent. Mission Hill and Roxbury are slightly over the total of 27 percent. Downtown, northern, and eastern Boston have less canopy, with East Boston having the least at about 7 percent.

     The draft UFP calls overall for preservation, care, and planting of trees and offers “strategies and recommendations” for doing that. At this time, it does not set a goal for Boston tree cover percent in the future.

     “Equity” is general Goal #1, asking for “focus on investments and improvements in under-canopied, historically excluded and socially vulnerable areas” of the city. It also says that the forest workforce come from similar areas, and the outreach and support be given residents to protect and care for trees on private property.

     Goal #2 calls for “Proactive Care and Preservation” to “ensure trees/tree canopy are proactively cared for.” This recommends creating a tree protection ordinance, with requirements and incentives for tree protection during development. Mature trees should be treated as especially important. Ensure other departments share the same goals for protective care. Expand the tree care workforce. Increase data sharing with partners. “Future-proof the urban forest by addressing challenges to trees and other care needs such as adequate staffing and funding.”

     Goal #3 “Community Driven Processes” recommends that the community has an active role in guiding tree canopy decisions. It suggests a city tree advisory board that includes people from historically unincluded neighborhoods and creation of an urban forest website.

     “Trees are Prioritized and Valued” is Goal #4. It calls for increasing “awareness and buy-in regarding the importance of trees in Boston, across the public and private sectors.” It suggests improved awareness and coordination within government to “ensure the value of trees is embedded within other programs, priorities and policies.” It wants to see “adjustments to the development process that support retention of existing large trees and increase new plantings.”

     Two other forest-related planning processes are going on at the City of Boston right now: a Heat Resilience Study and an Open Space and Recreation Plan. The UFP is coordinating with them. Overall, the outdoor planning is called “Healthy Places.”

     The UFP CAB “will provide input on the UFP by reviewing the draft materials and supplying comments and recommendations,” Project Manager Owens wrote in an email last week, describing next steps at my request.

      Owens emphasized that the Urban Forest Plan is “just the start.” She said that the plan will be a 20-year vision that “will involve many different stewards of the forest across public and private property.”

     She added that, “Acting on the ideas, seeing what does or doesn’t work in practice, and further conversations with communities will all be a part of implementing a Boston-wide forestry effort.”

     The BPRD will have information about the forest plan at tables at Mayor Wu’s Neighborhood Coffee Hours around the city in May and June. In Jamaica Plain the coffee hour will take place at Mozart Park in Hyde Square on Fri., May 13 from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.

     The City of Boston website has more about the UFP with details and many photos and illustrative graphics. Go to https://www.boston.gov/departments/parks-and-recreation/urban-forest-plan for more information. The site has a recording of the March 14 virtual open house meeting as well.

            Sandra Storey is the Publisher Emeritus of the Jamaica Plain Gazzette.

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