City of Columbus: Urban-forestry master plan calls for increasing tree canopy to 40%

Gary Seman Jr.
ThisWeek group
Rosalie Hendon, environmental planner for the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, stands amid large shade trees in Antrim Park in northwest Columbus. The recently released urban-forestry master plan, of which Hendon is project manager, calls for increasing the tree canopy throughout the city.

Trees are beautiful, are good for the environment and enhance property values.

But in Columbus, most neighborhoods don't have enough of them, according to the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department.

After 18 months of planning and involving community groups, individuals, companies and professionals, Columbus recreation and parks officials have released the urban-forestry master plan, which seeks to grow the canopy to 40% across the city, a process that will take 20 to 30 years.

Columbus has a 22% overall tree canopy, lower than many of its peer cities, such as Pittsburgh (40%), Cincinnati (39%) and Louisville, Kentucky, (37%), according to the plan.

“The tree canopy refers to the part of a city that is shaded by trees,” according to the master plan.

Canopy cover is the percentage of the city that is covered by trees when viewed from above, as opposed to water, open green space, hard surfaces and bare soil.

The public-comment portion on the master plan was closed March 31, with 94 additional comments made through the website and another 20 a week earlier at the Columbus City Council hearing March 24.

“I will say I’m happy to see that so far, there is a lot of support from the people from Columbus,” said Rosalie Hendon, environmental planner and project manager for the master pan.

Naturally, some Columbus neighborhoods have a broader canopy than others, with some at 41% and others at 9%.

The disparity likely is the result of new development, which required the destruction of a certain number of trees, and neighborhoods with a paucity of open greenspace, such as German Village, which has a 20% canopy.

“Just because of our environment, it would be on our homeowners (to plant trees),” said Chris Hune, chairwoman of the German Village Society board of trustees.

She said some groups are active with local parks, such as Friends of Schiller, which tries to protect the tree stock.

“Obviously, there’s only so much space you’ve got,” Hune said.

With the city’s population expected to grow by 1 million people by 2050, improving and adding to the tree stock is fundamental, Hendon said.

The last survey was done in 2015 by a consultant. Hendon said the master plan calls for another tree inventory, adding that the percentages likely vary because of high-density development in some neighborhoods.

The Columbus Recreation and Parks Department will seek the approval of the plan from Columbus City Council and the Recreation and Parks Commission by June, Hendon said. She said the approval likely would come in the form of a resolution and not legislation, which will give the department more flexibility in implementing the plan.

The plan has three specific goals: reach a citywide tree canopy of 40%, stop net canopy loss by 30% and invest in equitable canopy loss across all neighborhoods by 2030.

“An equitable tree canopy is mature, healthy and sustainable, and it is appropriately placed to provide other environmental and social benefits in neighborhoods,” the document said.

Hendon said she has found that there’s interest from the public in creating a tool – either by creating a policy or city ordinance – to save trees on private properties.

“Columbus lacks a lot of protection for private trees,” she said.

When asked if that was a bit aggressive, trying to regulate trees on private property, Hendon said it’s not intended to be a punitive action to single-family property owners but instead is meant to address saving trees in the development process.

City code generally addresses landscaping, including the number and types of trees, in the site plan, which goes under review.

There’s much more to the process, and “we definitely haven’t decided what that will look like,” she said.

Much of the city-managed tree stock is in the rights of way, or areas between the sidewalks and roads, she said. Replacement trees can be challenging, as space and the roots of the tree always are a consideration, she said.

Although street trees technically are the city’s property and the city’s responsibility to maintain them, residents are asked to water them when they’re planted, Hendon said.

“When we’re planting, it would be helpful if they were able to water that tree,” she said. “It’s helpful for survival.”

The city still is mitigating the fallout of the emerald ash borer's infestation. Thus far, the city has removed all 18,000 hazardous ash trees on public property. The city is in the process of replacing the deficit left by those trees.

Trees are a valuable commodity, city officials said, because they can absorb rainwater, provide shade, reduce air pollution and control soil erosion.

“Columbus is growing, and our tree canopy should be growing, too,” said Nathan Johnson, public-lands director for the Ohio Environmental Council, which helped develop the plan.

Johnson said the plan is ”excellent” and goes a long way in identifying major gaps in the region’s tree canopy.

Yet, he expects the city to live up to its plan. He said Columbus spends 38% less than the average that other cities across the United States spend on tees.

“We think this is bold,” Johnson said. “It’s ambitious. The city is talking about nearly doubling the tree canopy it has right now. It’s impressive."

gseman@thisweeeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary