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Tree Planting in Grand Rapids

We talk so often about tree plantings and projects completed by the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks (FGRP) that sometimes we forget the measures taken by the City of Grand Rapids to help meet the community’s 40% tree canopy goal. Last year, the City of Grand Rapids planted 1980 trees on streets throughout our community. This fall, they plan to continue their effort with an additional 800 trees.

Recognizing the City’s commitment to sustainability, and the 40% tree canopy goal, the City’s Forestry operations have adopted an extremely forward-thinking planting plan. Using a map of tree canopy across the City, the City Forester- Tyler Stevenson- created several planting districts. These districts were listed in order of lowest percentage of tree canopy to highest percentage of tree canopy. Based on projected tree planting funding and operational needs, he has been planting several districts a year starting in 2012 with the least canopied districts and plans to finish with the districts with highest tree canopy in 2016. Within each district, all possible spaces that can support a large-growing shade tree are identified and planted.

Why is this important? Several reasons.

Tree canopy is understood to be related to social and economic status. Recent research has shown that urban areas with higher income tend to have higher tree canopy, whereas those urban areas with low tree canopy tend to on average have lower income. The reason for this relationship is not fully understood, but it has been identified. More importantly, the forestry community has recognized for years that trees contribute to higher property values, better health, and more vibrant communities. Therefore, it becomes ever more important that tree planting and maintenance is included as part of a comprehensive strategy in our commitment to developing neighborhoods.

A planting plan is systematic. The City has committed to a 40% tree canopy goal, but budget cuts have resulted in minimal resources. A key component to reaching the City’s goal is ensuring adequate stocking of the plantable areas throughout the City; both parks and streets. Filling out these areas in a piece-meal approach is chaotic, inefficient, and may leave some spaces forgotten and unplanted. Operating in an organized, systematic way is critical to ensuring a reasonable advancement towards the City’s stated and adopted goals.

The City of Grand Rapids has committed to sustainability with an increased emphasis on reducing energy use, reducing output of green-house gases, reducing costs, and developing new revenue structures and the current planting plan helps to meet these goals. Historically, Forestry would respond to tree planting on a request basis. Forestry might plant a tree in the Northwest corner of the City, then drive to the Southwest corner of the City to plant the next tree. For several years thereafter the City would be stuck watering and maintaining trees scattered across our community. This extremely inefficient practice increased planting and maintenance costs, did nothing to advance environmental justice, and stressed already strapped staff resources.

Far more important than tree planting, the City of Grand Rapids has committed to providing care to our existing trees to promote growth, protect canopy, and reduce risk. Tree maintenance is critical to ensuring that our old trees survive and mature. Moreover, on-going tree maintenance is an important response to risk management. Old trees sometimes die and as they age, they may also lose branches. This is natural, but when trees are not properly maintained, they can fail; sometimes catastrophically. Recently, some Cities have been held liable for negligence in the care of trees that led to damage of life or property.

Unfortunately, the City of Grand Rapids has been hit by a series of budgetary challenges. During the financial crisis, falling property values and a depressed job market have contributed to significant decreases in tax revenue. As a result, the City has been faced with making extremely challenging budgetary cuts and Forestry services have experienced substantial funding cuts.

Recently, there appears to be a lack of satisfaction with tree planting and maintenance in some areas of the City; it takes too long to have a tree removed, or a tree is not immediately replanted following a removal. This issue is recognized and well documented. Unfortunately, it is not an issue of management; it is an issue of resources. Simply, we cannot expect to receive a grade-A level of service, when our forestry has a grade-D level of funding.

Some may ask why the City cannot replant a tree immediately following removal. “Can’t a planting truck immediately follow a removal truck and get the job done in one day?” citizens may ask. The answer is no. First off, tree planting can only be completed in the Spring or Fall to maximize the survival rate of the trees. Removals are done during all seasons. Second, many of the City’s tree removal is contractual, whereas planting is mostly completed in-house. Finally, tree removals occur across the City, not just in one or two districts. Planting trees at removal locations would do little to reduce the per tree cost of watering and maintenance that is required for high levels of tree survival.

While improving service in planting or maintenance may be possible, it would mean reallocating resources from other operations. For example, if the City were to plant trees on a request basis or immediately following removals, it would increase per tree planting costs. This cost-increase would have to be covered by (a) planting less trees and backing off City tree canopy commitments, (b) decrease in other maintenance operations such as tree removal or pruning thereby likely increasing exposure to hazardous tree risk, (c) charge a home-owner for the increased cost to plant a tree that is requested outside of the planting plan, or (d) a commitment of additional budgetary resources.

Perhaps as our economy continues to strengthen, we will be able to allocate more resources to our City’s Forestry operations. At that time, we might be able to offer higher levels of service: tree planting on demand, prompt removal, stump-grinding, a full tree inventory and management plan, and higher staffing levels. Unfortunately, that time is likely still years off. Until then, we can rest assured that our qualified City Forester is wisely allocating and utilizing the resources available to provide as much service as possible.

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2 thoughts on “Tree Planting in Grand Rapids”

  1. Cary Kuenn says:

    I would like to plant 2 trees on the right of way by my house. Trees have been there before because there are cut outs in the sidewalk for the trees.

    Is there a list of tree vendors in the area that carry Giinko ? Thank you for your time and consideration.

  2. Lee says:

    Cary,

    Ginkgo’s are good, hardy, urban trees. The City of Grand Rapids has planted them in a variety of situations. So far, they appear to be doing well. That said, Ginkgo can sometimes be more expensive than other tree species.

    First off, you’ll want to get a tree permit. This permit gives the City Forester an opportunity and provide recommendations ahead of the planting effort. These can be submitted (at no charge) on-line at: http://grcity.us/public-services/Parks-Recreation-Forestry/Pages/Application-for-a-Permit-To-Plant-an-Ornamental-Tree-or-Shrub.aspx

    Otherwise, we do not recommend any specific vendors or nurseries. There’s plenty of great places in our area to buy trees. In fact, West Michigan is one of the great nursery production regions in the State.

    That said, we do recommend that you work through a retailer or nursery who specializes in landscaping, plants, and trees. We find these producers often have fresher, better stock. Otherwise, there’s a couple of guides to help you select, place, and plant a tree on this website. You can find those here: http://www.urbanforestproject.com/guides.php

    Let us know if there’s anything else we can help with. Until then, Happy Planting!

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