Monday, July 23, 2012

Tree-planting's great; but look at big picture, too

Davis Cable, former head of the Catawba Lands Conservancy, just gave an intriguing presentation to the Charlotte City Council, about a new initiative to try to plant 50,000 trees across the city, to help the city with its adopted goal of having 50 percent of the city land under a canopy of trees by 2050. The city canopy now is about 46 percent. If the city is built out according to current zoning, the canopy will shrink to 45 percent.

It's a public-private venture - not a new nonprofit being formed but an initiative called Tree Charlotte, Cable explained. The Foundation for the Carolinas has given $20,000; so has the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The idea: Get the community involved and engaged in planting trees.

It's probably the best warm-fuzzy idea I've heard emerge from this windowless chamber in the government center in ages. Who could be against this idea?

But as I analyze why Charlotte has lost so much of its canopy, one inescapable conclusion is that a huge amount of the loss has to do with new development, mostly in the suburbs. Duh, right? But think about how much of any new retail development is that huge surface parking lot. Yes, the city requires trees sprinkled through it, but it's not the same as the woods that had to get cleared to build it. If we could drive less, we could save a lot of trees.

And what about subdivisions that spring up with no rezoning needed, because all the undeveloped land in the city got automatically zoned for subdivisions (or more intense development) about 30 years ago? There is no zoning for farms or woods or protected areas. Most subdivisions are virtually clearcut. To be sure, the city has a new tree ordinance that requires new developments to save small amounts of trees on the site. That's better than nothing. Still ...

And all that new commercial development that serves those new subdivisions means new or expanded roads, which mow down trees. (And I do mean roads in this instance, not city streets, which of course should all have street trees.) Streets, parking lots and rooftops mean more stormwater runoff, which requires big pipes and stream "restoration" projects that take out even more trees.

In short, more city-style development – with multi-story buildings close to each other, so you can easily walk to places you need to go, with parking decks instead of surface lots, and a vastly improved transit system – would result in a lot more trees saved on the edge of the city, as many of those  suburban developments wouldn't be getting built.

Meanwhile, if multiple developers are to be believed – and I think they're probably not making this up – redeveloping inside more urban-style areas is really, really tough, and made harder by some well-intentioned but bizarrely enforced zoning and inspection standards.

As Cable made his presentation to a receptive City Council, here's what I was sending out via Twitter: 

Good presentation to #cltcc [Twitter-speak for Charlotte City Council] on Charlotte tree canopy. Push on to plant more trees, says Dave Cable. But much is going unsaid ... (cont)

Cont. ... Re tree canopy: Shouldn't city look at its devt rules that allow/encourage major spread into undeveloped (treed) areas? 

Good pix of a Peachtree Hills retrofit plan, adding back trees in clearcut subdivision. Worthy effort. BUT ... it's after-the-fact.

Yes, plant trees. Also save em: Build city streets, not huge ROW-sucking highways. End auto-pilot OK for subdivisions on city fringe.
AND, to encourage more tight, urban-style infill stop requiring suburban-style "buffers" and berms in urban areas.

I applaud the tree-planting effort. It's a good idea and will help.
But it's the rules of development that shape how the city grows. If Charlotte wants to be a place that isn't always trying to catch up to its tree loss by planting thousands of new trees, shouldn't it take a holistic look at what sort of development the city is allowing, and where?


Audrey said...

Amen, Mary, Amen. As someone who lives out in the suburbs, I'd love nothing more than some alternatives to driving everywhere. And safely. I can't be the only one....

Anonymous said...

Charlotte needs an urban growth boundary. A large part of significant tree canopy for Mecklenburg County is in the "Catawba Area".

See how Portland uses this as a tool...

Janelle said...

Doing survey work all around the county, it saddens me to see small 'clumps' of trees left by developers, where huge forests used to be.
Back in the 70's, I attended Home Builders Assoc. meetings when their main objective was to get clear cutting approved; they did....and of course, we are stuck with the results!

Anonymous said...

Let's remember that tree canopy goal initiatives are still a new concept. Numerous cities across the country have created these programs (NYC, BOSTON, LA) and are using various methods to maintain and improve canopy cover.

We'll see how it works, there's a lot to take gotta monitor how many trees are lost and then plant 'em back. Oh, yeah...and community support/stewardship is neeeded, and last but not least a BOATLOAD OF $$$.

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