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Energy & Environment

Study Finds Tree Canopy Isn't Growing; Should City Alter Goal?

The study used 2016 federal agricultural aerial photos and 2016-17 NC Emergency Management  images.
City of Charlotte
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The Charlotte tree study used 2016 federal agricultural aerial photos and 2016-17 NC Emergency Management images.

Charlotte's tree canopy was little changed from 2012 to 2016, shrinking only slightly as trees were cut for development. A new study delivered to the City Council Monday shows losses were offset by tree planting and natural growth.

The study for the city arborist showed trees covered 46.8 percent of Charlotte in 2016, down only slightly from 47.1 percent in 2012.

 A slide in Monday's City Council presentation showed examples of tree gains and losses between 2012-16. City officials say they still have a lot of analysis to do.
Credit City of Charlotte
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A slide in Monday's City Council presentation showed examples of tree gains and losses between 2012-16. City officials say they still have a lot of analysis to do.

That was a net loss of between 400 and 520 acres of trees, according to estimates by consulting firm Plan-It GEO. That's about 0.3 percent of Charlotte's total area of 196,000 acres. The study had a margin of error of 0.9 percent.

Charlotte requires commercial developers to preserve at least 15 percent of the trees on a site, or 10 percent for single-family lots.  

In 2011, the city set a goal of boosting the tree canopy to 50 percent by 2050. The new study shows Charlotte is not making any progress, said Gina Shell of the city's engineering department.

“We think that this might be a good basis to re-evaluate our tree canopy goal of the 50 percent in 2050,” Shell told the council.

Related content: At Big Tree Summit, Worries About Charlotte's Tree Canopy

Instead of a percentage target, she said the city might want to consider goals that describe the value of the tree canopy, “Like shade, like air quality, rainfall intercepted, aesthetics that we know can increase property values, and of course health.”

Shell offered examples of gains and losses: A wide area of trees cut for construction of Orr Elementary School in east Charlotte in 2014; new growth of street trees; and reforestation of an area that was clear cut in 2012.

Shell said city officials still have a lot of work to do to analyze data gathered in the study.

The question of whether to change the city's tree goals was referred to the council's Environment Committee, which has its next meeting on Thursday. 

Tree advocates like Chuck Cole say they want to see more.   “Poring over the data is essential to finding opportunities to grow the canopy. Understanding losses and gains and why they occur will give us an edge to ensure a healthy canopy in Charlotte,” said Cole, the executive director of nonprofit TreesCharlotte, which works with the city. 

RELATED LINKS

See a presentation by Gina Shell on the city council website