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Increasing Tree Equity -- One Cleveland Neighborhood at a Time

Quiana Singleton prepares a hole to plant a tree (Photo: Marlene Harris-Taylor/ideastream)

The Cleveland Tree Plan, an effort by city officials and partnering organizations, is a roadmap for the city to rebuild its urban forest. The urban forest is made up of all the trees on public property in cities and other communities, as well as trees on private land.

According to experts the local canopy cover is declining at a rapid rate. Cleveland’s canopy cover is about 19 percent, which is low compared to other industrialized cities, and is much lower than what experts consider to be optimal for urban areas, which is about 40 percent.

The tree canopy cover in Cleveland varies from neighborhood to neighborhood.  According to the Tree Plan, the range is about four percent in the downtown area to as high as 39 percent in Euclid-Green. Researchers have found those areas with a low number of trees are missing some of the benefits they provide from their simple beauty to serious health benefits.

This disparity in trees by neighborhood is rooted in historical economic shifts of tax revenue leaving the city and by the ravaging of trees because of disease, said tree expert, Joseph Gregory, from the Davey Tree Expert Group in Kent. Davey Tree consultants helped the city develop the tree plan. A coalition of Cleveland community groups is partnering to put the tree plan’s goal of repopulating trees in areas of most need into action. They are developing climate ambassadors in neighborhoods with low canopy cover, said Eric Rodgriquez, who is with the Burton, Bell, Carr Community Development agency.

One of those ambassadors, Quiana Singleton, through a grant from Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, has developed a project for school-aged children in Kinsman. Her goal is to teach the kids at Anton Grdina School, how to plant and care for new trees.

On a recent sunny September morning Singleton, with the help of arborists from Holden Arboretum and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy kicked off the first session of the pilot project with 12 sixth graders on the school grounds, 2995 E, 71st St.  With shovels in hand the students dug up dirt, put compost around the newly-planted roots, learned the benefits of earth worms and possibly gained a greater appreciation for trees.

Singleton fancies herself as a tree prophet whose goal is to gather disciples in the quest to bring more trees and maintained greens space to Kinsman and the adjacent Central neighborhoods.

She is a passionate advocate for the neighborhood and for respecting trees.

“They get stressed and people doesn’t know that. They do not know that trees actually get stressed. When they’re cutting the grasses right. When it hits the tree because it’s like when you hit the tree and like when you hit your feet you’re like ahhh. You know that feeling? I be wondering if the tree feels like that because the trees is alive,” Singleton said.

The lack of trees in neighborhoods like this is a real problem because the research is clear. Trees provide real health benefits said Michelle Kondo, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service.

 “We are starting see pretty good evidence out there that the amount of trees or shrubs, plants, really effects the well-being, quality of life and actual health of the people that spend time there, that live there, and work there,” said Kondo who has authored several studies on the benefits of urban green spaces in cities like Philadelphia.

Well-maintained green spaces can improve mental health outcomes – things like anxiety and depression and how well people recover from stress, she said.

It’s crucial for city’s like Cleveland to find a way to stop the loss of canopy cover, Kondo said.

One lesson that has been learned in other cities is the importance of getting buy-in from local residents for new green space projects, she said. The supporters of the Singleton’s project in Kinsman learned that lesson the hard way.

This is not the first time trees were planted at the school Rodriquez said.  The first planting happened about a year ago. There was a lot of fanfare but no plan to maintain the newly planted trees, he said.

 “Unfortunately because of the winter and because there was vandalism of some of the trees a majority of them didn’t survive,” Rodriquez said.

Everyone is hopeful it will be different this time around.

The Amur maackia and Redbud trees are expected to bloom with white flowers in the Spring. If that happens Singleton will know her goal of fostering ownership in the kids planting the trees has taken root.

This story is part of the series “Healthy People, Healthy Places” … covering the intersection of people, place, and health.

Marlene Harris-Taylor
Marlene is the director of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.