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How Is Your Community Protecting Its Tree Canopy?

Trees are an important community asset. Not only do they contribute to a healthy

environment and add beauty, but they also provide economic benefits. Smart cities recognize this and take steps to protect their trees and build a healthy canopy.  

While most cities have a tree ordinance to regulate various aspects of tree maintenance, removal, and planting; these ordinances often do not go far enough. These ordinances are especially important in cities – like those in our region – with fast-growing populations. 

Why is a Tree Canopy Important? Trees provide shade, clean the air, reduce stormwater run

off, provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators, and increase property values. Trees improve our quality of life. Their leafy branches pair with our rolling hills to create beauty and define our sense of place. As more of our rural land becomes urbanized, the role of the urban tree canopy becomes increasingly important.

What is the state of our region’s tree canopy? Our region’s tree canopy is shrinking. GNRC’s analysis of GIS data indicates the ten-county region lost approximately 23,707 acres of tree canopy between 2012 and 2017.  

In Nashville, Metro currently assumes it is losing approximately 9,000 trees each year. Jim Gregory, chairman and founder of the non-profit group Nashville Tree Conservation Corp, thinks the number is likely much higher. Gregory points to a recent Urban Canopy Assessment in slower-growing Louisville, Kentucky that determined they have been losing 54,000 trees annually since 2015.   

How can communities protect their tree canopy? Assess the canopy and set goals.  Communities should start by assessing their current canopy and setting goals for the preservation and growth of their canopy. How future development will impact the canopy should be considered. Atlanta, which boasts that its 47.5% Urban Tree Canopy is the highest in the nation among those cities that have conducted a canopy assessment, has set a goal of no net canopy loss. Charlotte’s goal is to increase its tree canopy from 47% to 50% by 2050.  Start a tree planting program.  Programs that encourage property owners to plant trees and other efforts to systematically add new trees to the canopy are important. Metro Nashville launched “Root Nashville,” a campaign to plant 500,000 new trees by 2050. Many communities leverage the Tennessee Environmental Council’s statewide 250,000 Tree Day event to add to their inventory of trees.

Institute a tree preservation program.  Establishing ordinances that discourage clear-cutting and the removal of mature trees will help preserve the canopy if administered properly. Mitigation measures should be incorporated in preservation programs such that when trees are removed there is a clear process to restore the canopy. 

Nashville is in the process of updating its tree ordinances to be more canopy-friendly. While it is an encouraging step, the current draft of the ordinance appears to be less robust than those of peer cities, including Atlanta.   

Loss of Urban Canopy Breeds Anti-Growth Activism  The recent kerfuffle over the removal of some cherry trees for a temporary stage in downtown Nashville highlighted how deeply citizens care about the loss of trees. In less than two days, more than 70,000 people signed a petition to keep the trees intact.

Most people realize growth is a given, and preferable to a declining or stagnant community. Yet there is growing dismay from citizens who see trees around them disappear daily as development intensifies. Clear-cutting and development without accompanying tree strategies are sure ways to create new legions of anti-growth activists who will oppose most any development project. Trees can help bring people together. Let them work for you.

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