Trees have lives of their own, far outlasting ours, says Harrisburg Parks Maintenance Director Ronald Taylor.
“A tree goes from a seed to a sapling to a tree to dying,” he said. “Once it’s merged in the earth, it becomes carbon fuel, so it can become coal, so it can also become a diamond.”
Trees bring lots of good stuff to cities. They soak up carbon dioxide. They break up the urban hardscape. They provide shade that cools people and homes.
“Studies have shown that people buy more and tend to be happier in communities where there are more trees,” said Taylor. “The more green covering, the better.”
Happy trees, happy community. That’s why Harrisburg public officials and private citizens are pushing to revive the tree canopy citywide.
In 2018, the city expects to plant some 200 trees, with help from volunteers from United Way, Deloitte and neighborhood groups. Currently, Harrisburg’s 6,826 street trees—those that line streets in public rights-of-way—create a canopy that cover less than 30 percent of city streets, well short of the 47 percent goal set by the U.S. Forest Service.
Moreover, about 800 dead or sick trees in Harrisburg “need to come down,” said Taylor. Planting 200 in one year won’t close the gap, but with 300 slated for planting next year and more to come, the plan puts the city on target to full canopy in 10 years, he said.
Harrisburg, like most old cities, has a legacy tree problem. Trees are aging, falling over, dying and, until relatively recently, little consideration was given to what makes a good replacement.
So, towering oaks, elms and other species that need a lot of room for their roots and canopies were stuffed into little tree boxes, surrounded by concrete and asphalt. That was bad for the tree, the street and the sidewalk.
“Right tree, right spot,” asserted Specialist Ellen Roane of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Urban Forestry Program
In other words, indiscriminate plantings often lead to complications later.
Indeed, some trees are better equipped to handle the stress of urban environments, and more specifically, each tree has its own microenvironment to deal with. Power lines are a big problem, limiting a tree’s maximum height. The once-popular Callery pear species, including the ubiquitous Bradford pear, has turned out to be prone to splitting, and it’s invasive. The city’s tree-up plan increases the diversity as well as the number of trees.
Another 50 pin oaks, given by an anonymous donor, will be planted along Front Street and Riverfront Park, where many existing trees “need some care,” said Taylor. Many others there must come down because “they have been, shall we say, sick for some time and are not in the best of health.”
This is a fight with no end. Victory comes through maintenance and vigilance, tree experts said. Everyone gets a feel-good rush from planting trees, but maintenance in the early years is crucial to assuring survival. Urban trees need a little nudging and pruning to assure they grow straight and have a single growth “leader,” instead of multiple leaders that grow simultaneously and make the tree prone to splitting.
“A large, mature shade tree’s potential lifespan is 80 to 100 years if it’s in a good location and properly cared for,” said Roane. “We’re trying to get (municipalities) to think about planting every year, and even more, pruning trees they’ve got and removing some. They don’t live forever.”
Some municipalities have Shade Tree Commissions—state-sanctioned citizen panels that monitor and encourage tree affairs—but Harrisburg has a Tree Advisory Committee, a group of volunteers focused on urban forestry.
Members work on the ground, often taking courses offered by Tree Tenders, a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society program that teaches the basics of tree planting and care. They also work with the city on planning and tree selection, and they helped revise a tree ordinance now under city review to strengthen regulatory options. Committee Chair Pat Buckley hopes that a soon-to-be-hired city arborist will keep the city’s tree inventory, dating to 2013, updated so the committee can target areas of greatest need.
On the neighborhood level, Friends of Midtown has its own “Street Trees for Midtown” project, boosted by a $1,575 TreeVitalize grant from DCNR, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Urban and Community Forestry Council. Currently, the group is raising matching funds so it can plant 15 trees this spring. Following Roane’s mantra, all are “right tree, right spot,” a range of maple, oak and locust types that offer durability and growth that provides shade quickly “but not catastrophically.”
“I would love to have 15 more people come at me for next spring and the spring after that,” said Friends of Midtown Beautification Committee Co-Chair Rachel Reese. “What I really want is for people to continue to express their interest.”
The Midtown planting is planned for April 28, depending on weather.
Some homeowners “politely decline” to have trees planted in front of their homes, said Roane, but most “like being able to look out at a tree.”
“If the homeowners can keep them watered, we’re going to work with a cadre of Tree Tenders to keep them pruned,” said Reese. “We can prune so they’re not always being whacked by parked cars, or there aren’t limbs blocking pedestrians. If the trees are being watered and mulched, we can prune every three or five years as they establish themselves.”
Also in the fight is Capital Region Water, which is developing its City Beautiful H2O storm water management plan. In community meetings for the plan, green infrastructure emerged as “a clear winner” among available options, said Community Outreach Manager Andrew Bliss.
“People were overwhelmingly interested, and it makes sense, where it’s cost effective, to invest in green projects rather than going underground,” he said.
Even greening with grass doesn’t prevent storm water from running wild, he said. Tree leaves hold and scatter rain as it falls and roots “infiltrate” it into the ground. Initial projects, sort of “early action” demonstrations, include greening at 13th and Market streets and streetscaping at 14th and Derry streets in conjunction with Tri County Community Action.
“This is stuff we’ve been talking about for the last two years,” said Bliss. “We felt we really needed to show what we’re talking about.”
CRW is also partnering with the city on green “bumpouts” for the 3rd Street overhaul, and it is funding street tree plantings at some residences, where the homeowners will be required to perform maintenance.
Harrisburg’s Taylor lauded the cooperation he’s witnessed among city officials, residents and community organizations to care for the city’s trees.
“All entities are working together to make sure our tree population is not only sustainable but continues to grow,” he said. “It’s a beautiful city in the summer. We want to maintain that and continue that growth.”
For information on upcoming Tree Tenders workshops, visit www.extension.psu.edu/tree-tenders.
To find out more about Friends of Midtown’s tree-planting efforts, visit www.friendsofmidtown.org.
To volunteer with the city’s tree efforts, email Ronald Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn the species of tree outside your house, visit www.opentreemap.org/patreemap/map.