Austin – Speaking for the Trees

Austin’s tree ordinances and activities are driven by Austinites according to Austin City Council Aide Shannon Halley. For more than 30 years, the city’s Urban Forestry Board, a city council-appointed group, has been meeting monthly to study, investigate, plan, advise, report and recommend any action, program, plan or legislation that the board determines advisable. Citizen involvement extends beyond the board, though.

In 2006, a neighborhood was concerned about the number of trees being trimmed in their community and asked for the Austin City Council to enact a tree-trimming moratorium to evaluate the issue. The council complied, and that year, a tree task force was formed to look into Austin’s urban canopy practices. This task force proposed a number of broad strategies for improving the city’s urban canopy practices, which included providing the framework for updating Austin’s tree ordinances to include heritage trees. The task force also recommended the formation of an interdepartmental tree group that would meet once a month, a recommendation that would prove beneficial to the city’s urban forest.

“Many times, the city’s departments have different goals,” says Keith Mars, an environmental program coordinator for the City of Austin. “We’re speaking more with one voice now. We use these meetings to discuss conflicts and make decisions so the city can minimize any confusion for its citizens regarding tree issues.” Because many municipal operations and social requirements lead to encroachment into areas needed for to sustain trees, a transparent, scientific approach is needed, according to members of the city’s Urban Forestry Program, to address:

  • Maximizing soil volumes for trees within rights of way and within proposed development projects;
  • Lady Bird Lake. Credit: Paul Lowry

    Quantifying the value of existing vegetation, as opposed to removing it and planting new vegetation, and receiving incentives for preserving these areas;

  • Determining the potential impacts from using non-native nursery stock;
  • Minimizing tree impacts from utility conflicts;
  • Developing a GIS database and statistical analysis from development plans and tree mortality permits; and,
  • Assessing potential population decline of native species, such as post oak and Texas madrone.

By working collaboratively — between departments and with the arborist, development and neighborhood communities — Austin hopes to create a winning formula that maximizes trees and their benefits throughout the city. With approximately 6,000 trees being planted each year through the city’s Heat Island program, the city’s forestry team is eagerly awaiting an updated canopy report and tree inventory that will be available this year to see how much the needle has moved in recent years, especially considering Texas’ recent troubles with drought and Austin’s continued development.

While this new report will be a beneficial snapshot of the city’s current canopy, Arborist Embesi reveals that the city is currently developing a plan, the Comprehensive Urban Forest Plan, to address the city’s canopy. This plan would dive deeper than just the number of trees and would focus on plans that take into account Austin’s two distinct geographic areas — one a prairie and one a plateau — with their specific ecologies and land-use needs. This plan will address trees within all of its sections: land use and transportation, housing and neighborhoods, conservation and environment, city facilities and services, and tantamount to increasing the benefits the trees provide while also saving the city money.

Austin Energy is very aware of the money that can be saved through constructive planning of the city’s urban forest. When a tree has to be removed because of issues related to the utility line, the energy company gives the homeowner a new tree — free of charge — that is utility compatible, meaning that when the tree is mature, it will still be below the property’s utility lines. Therefore, homeowners can take care of the tree, while Austin Energy focuses its green activities elsewhere.

Henning relates how important it is to educate homeowners on the right types of trees to plant in the right location. “If we could get the right tree in the right place and didn’t have to spend money pruning trees away from power lines, we could spend that money for a lot better uses like improving the urban forest,” he says. “We can afford to get the right trees in the right place. We need to look at the long-term solutions.”

While the Comprehensive Urban Forest Plan underway is essential to providing some of the long-term solutions, like many cities around the country, Austin also finds itself with limited staff and resources to complete the work required to maintain and enhance its urban forest. Twenty five Parks and Recreation Department and Planning and Development Review Department Urban Forestry Programs employees are responsible for 300,000 public trees in Austin, plus all of the public programs designed to engage Austin’s citizens in helping care for and protect the city’s greenspaces. It’s a daunting task, but one that Austin is committed to tackling.

One of the ways the city hopes to improve the urban canopy in the future is by using greenspaces to increase alternative means of transportation, especially biking and walking paths, according to Ana González, a forester with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Studies have shown that well-vegetated areas encourage people to get outside and enjoy their surroundings. By strategically planting trees to enhance these corridors, fitness opportunities will be up, air pollution from cars will be down and Austinites will be healthier. A win-win-win proposition.

And beyond their practical applications, trees also provide another much needed asset to any city: beauty. As City Council Aide Halley relates, a University of Texas-Austin president once asked, “Would you rather your children looked at bricks or branches?”


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