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Science & Environment

Meet The New Guardians Of Charlotte's Tree Canopy

Kings Creek tree-planting event Oct 2020.jpg
Courtesy TreesCharlotte
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TreesCharlotte has 35-40 tree giveaway and planting events planned for the fall and winter tree planting season. Kings Creek neighborhood ran a planting event on Oct. 31, 2020.

For the first time in history, the guardians of the Charlotte tree canopy are both women.

In the spring of 2021, Laurie Reid Dukes became city arborist and Jane Singleton Myers became executive director of TreesCharlotte. Among their key goals: grow the canopy in low-income neighborhoods, increase plantings, and diversify tree species in the urban forest.

In late June, the conservation organization American Forests announced a new method for evaluating equitable tree cover in American cities. The new Tree Equity Score evaluates whether the health, economic, and climate benefits of trees are distributed equitably, and are based on how the canopy and surface temperatures align with income, employment, race, age and health.

Charlotte’s overall score is 92, which places the city among the 10 best in the country. But examining the map and the details show that the same "wedge and crescent" pattern that governs most of the city’s socioeconomic and equity distribution also applies to tree canopy. Tree equity scores for neighborhoods in the southern "wedge" are 100, or in the high 90s. Neighborhoods everywhere else, in the overarching "crescent," score much lower. People of color or low income are far more likely to live in neighborhoods with inadequate tree canopy.

Charlotte needs to plant 28,000 trees to raise the score of all neighborhoods to a score of 75, according to American Forests.

Dukes and Myers are well aware of data on environmental justice, and have plans to address it.

treecanopy.jpg
Tree Charlotte and Queens University News Service
Laurie Dukes, left, is the Charlotte city arborist. Jane Myers, right, is TreesCharlotte's executive director.

“What we’ve learned is that the greatest loss we’re having is on single-family homes. Around 65% of loss to the canopy is on single-family homes,” Myers said. “So that’s a great opportunity there in just educating people on why they want to plant trees and the value they provide to clean air, water run-off and power bills.

"We also have a great opportunity in lower income communities where the canopy is less dense. So we will be focused on how we can grow and care for those areas as well.”

Losses In Charlotte’s Tree Canopy

Assessments by the Center for Watershed Protection, the University of Vermont, and TreesCharlotte indicate Charlotte lost 8% of its urban tree canopy between 2012-2018.

Charlotte’s Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan and an accompanying document, the Tree Canopy Action Plan, define actions to strengthen the canopy during the city’s next 20 years of growth.

Neighborhood-focused tree-planting events are one of the key solutions organized by TreesCharlotte, a non-profit organization focused on the issue. The group has 35 to 40 events scheduled for the fall and winter tree-planting season.

“We need the communities to come to us and help us, help them,” Myers said. “We have neighborhood events where we will do tree planting and tree giveaways, so that it is a free cost to folks who want to help grow our canopy,” said Myers. “If we can get folks in any of the community reaching out to us to help us coordinate that — homeowners associations, churches, whoever it might be that can mobilize the different communities around Charlotte — then we can make a bigger impact.”

Citiside neighborhood tree-planting event Jan 2021.jpg
Courtesy TreesCharlotte
Neighborhood tree planting events are a key tactic in addressing Charlotte tree canopy loss. The Citiside neighborhood and TreesCharlotte ran a planting and give-away event on Jan. 23, 2021.

New City Arborist’s Role In Preserving Charlotte's Tree Canopy

One of Reid's primary responsibilities as the city arborist is managing and controlling public trees protected by law.

In 1978, Charlotte introduced a law that protects trees in the public right of way and those found on private property. Reid said city residents need more education on the ordinance.

“Something that is very important to me is to help the public and developers or even people who are just tearing down a tree on their private property to know that there are some laws within the city that do protect certain trees,” Reid said.

Causes Of Canopy Loss, And Ways To Keep Trees Healthy

Insects are a key cause of tree canopy decline, Reid said. The city landscape team manages 200,000 street trees in the city’s right-of-way, including 900 ash trees. These trees, and others located on private property, are recent targets of a notorious insect — the emerald ash borer.

“We’re losing a lot of ash trees from our landscape because of that insect,” Reid said. The city has a campaign to address the emerald ash borer.

One of Reid’s goals is reshaping the urban forest by planting a diverse range of trees — a portfolio strategy that prevents massive loss if one species is threatened. A future insect may target only one specific tree species, so diversity is important to maintaining the canopy.

Residents have less power to stop widespread attacks on trees from foreign insects, but Reid said there are ways to support tree health.

Trees that become stressed because of drought or soil deficiencies can be more prone to insects or diseases. Reid recommends doing soil tests, and watering trees during drought.

“Too much nitrogen that’s going into a landscape, especially with trees, will cause them to put on a lot of leaves which may look really good," she said. "But that can actually be a stressful situation for the trees because those extra leaves will require more water to be drawn up from the roots. If it’s dry, that tree just can’t get that water it needs.”

Protection Against Global Warming

The Environmental Protection Agency describes urban heat islands as locations where buildings, roads and infrastructure absorb and reemit heat from the sun. These areas are hotter than surrounding areas and require additional air conditioning. But shade trees and vegetation reduce that need.

Veronica Westendorff, a landscape architect and Ph.D. student at UNC Charlotte, wrote in 2020 that Charlotte tree ordinance planting requirements currently create a canopy of about 10% coverage in public areas of streets and parking. But 40% coverage has been shown to reduce the effect of urban heat islands, she wrote, which would require quadrupling the number of trees planted in public areas.

Women In Community Leadership

Women have led in environmental issues in Charlotte for decades, Westendorff wrote in a recent email. Leaders include Marianne Faulkner, airport landscape manager, and Gwen Cook, greenway planner with Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation.

“As a woman at meetings with community members,” Westendorff wrote, “I found people more willing to approach me, talk with me, answer my questions, and accept me with a high level of comfort and safety.”

Research from the recruiting and leadership development firm Korn Ferry indicates that women who are spearheading solutions to community issues may be better able than men to inspire and mentor new volunteers and organizers, demonstrate empathy, adapt to change, and perform well in teams. They outscore men in nearly all emotional intelligence categories. And research published by Harvard Business Journal in June 2019 indicates that women score higher than men on the majority of leadership competencies. They include taking initiative, resilience, self-development, driving for results, and displaying integrity and honesty.

Charlotte lost more than 100,000 trees annually in the last few years, Myers said. Individuals still have an important role to play.

“We’re planting back to catch up on that, but that’s not just something our nonprofit or the city can do,” Myers said. “So if you love trees and you love the shade, know that your one, two or three trees that you plant can make a difference.”

Elvis Menayese of Cardiff, Wales, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.