Baltimore’s urban tree canopy has been in steep decline for decades, and now is the time to rebuild it, says Jill Jonnes of the Baltimore Tree Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to planting trees in communities that need them most.
Baltimore should be covered with about a 40 percent tree canopy, according to American Forests, a conservation organization. A larger tree canopy helps remove carbon dioxide, pollutants, ozone, and particulates, and means more natural habitat for birds.
“Right now, the city is closer to 25 percent,” says Jonnes, a founder of the Tree Trust.
The term “tree canopy,” or “urban forest,” refers to the part of city that is shaded by trees.
The Tree Trust decided to focus its efforts on a community in dire need of trees—East Baltimore’s McElderry Park was chosen as a pilot project.
McElderry Park is bordered by Patterson Park Ave. to the west, Linwood Ave. to the east, Fayette St. to the south, and Monument St. to the north.
The community comprises 88 city blocks, the majority with a dearth of trees.
“McElderry Park is a ‘code red’ neighborhood, which means it is lower income and has lower public health indices and high rates of asthma,” notes Jonnes.
In terms of a tree canopy, McElderry Park’s coverage come in at about 13 percent—half of other neighborhoods.
“If you know McElderry Park, you know that entire blocks of McElderry Park have not a single tree or even a single tree pit,”Jonnes says.
Jacquelyn Fisher, a McElderry Park resident for eight years, was one of the first people in her neighborhood to advocate for the tree planting.
“I wanted to make the block look more like home, look more like a residential community,” Fisher says. “I enjoy gardening, and trees provide a sense of peace.”
The Tree Trust has been working with the City, Banner Neighborhoods, the McElderry Park Community Association, Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, and other groups since 2011 to get the trees planted.
To start the project, the Tree Trust hired local youth to conduct a tree inventory of the neighborhood last year, using iTree software.
The software helped the organization map McElderry Park and inventory its tree stock by age, size, condition, and type.
Using that data, the Tree Trust planted trees in a four-block area in the spring. “That was phase 1,” says Jonnes.
Before the trees are planted, the Tree Trust makes sure neighbors agree to take care of them.
“This summer, a group of local youth with an adult supervisor mulched those trees,” says Jonnes.
The trees are now thriving.
Even though it takes a while for the trees to grow —three to five years before you see a shade impact—residents say the neighborhood looks and feels different from the moment the trees are in the ground.
“The Tree Trust is making the neighborhood looks so nice,” says Fisher. “It was amazing. I’m already thinking about trees for next year.”
Perhaps surprisingly, McElderry Park hasn’t always been tree barren, Jonnes points out.
“Longtime McElderry Park residents say that years ago, it had more trees—a lot more trees. Some parts of the neighborhood do have large, healthy mature trees. It’s odd. What happened to the rest… I’m not sure. Maybe a tree disease,” she speculates.
Charles Murphy, operations manager at Tree Baltimore, the City’s tree-planting division, who frequently collaborates with the Tree Trust, says he has no idea.
“That’s a good question,” says Murphy, addig that he will put the question to local tree experts.
In November, the Tree Trust did its final planting of 2012 on the 2800 block of Jefferson St., transforming a one-tree block into a nine-tree block in the course of a morning.
Brigitta Latkowsky, who lives on Jefferson St., was delighted.
“I love nature and horticulture. I came from a neighborhood with tree-lined streets. I would often stop and take in the fragrance of the magnolias,” says Latkowsky. “We need trees here. Most of the homes in the neighborhood have concrete yards. I have seedlings of my own that I have to grow in pots.”
The Trust will resume its plantings in McElderry Park next spring.
Over the next five years, the group plans to plant between 600 and 800 trees in McElderry Park and conduct research on how well-being is affected by the increased tree canopy.
“Season after season, we’ll be planting up the blocks,” says Jonnes. “People feel like it’s changing the neighborhoods, and changing their lives.”
by Danielle Sweeney