Portland – Partnering for Trees

“For quite a long time, the city of Portland has recognized that trees are important. It shows up in a variety of places. And one of the most important places it can show up is in city planning documents,” says Angie DiSalvo, botanic specialist with the Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau. As she relates, this means that trees aren’t just a component of the urban forest management plan, but also a feature in documents like Portland’s comprehensive plan, climate action plan and others.

Multiple city bureaus in Portland deal with trees:

  • The Bureau of Development Services addresses trees that are impacted by development-related activities in the city.
  • BES handles the watershed management activities, plus has maintenance responsibilities for trees growing in a Greet Street facility, like a roadside swale.
  • Portland Parks & Recreation, which includes the Urban Forestry Division, has management responsibility for all trees growing on city-owned property and city rights of way, plus some trees growing on private property. It also is responsible for the maintenance of trees on and adjacent to properties owned by Portland Parks & Recreation.
  • The Bureau of Transportation is responsible for the trees that affect the light-rail system and roadways.
  • The Water Bureau addresses trees that help preserve, protect and clean groundwater.

With so many different players impacting trees throughout the city, in 2007, Portland formed an interagency group that would focus on addressing items in the Urban Forest Action Plan that was developed out of the city’s 2004 Urban Forest Management Plan.

“Coming together for some common goals through our management plan has been helpful,” says DiSalvo. “Having trees addressed in a regulatory program across the city has been helpful. Knowing that we have to interact to reach all of those goals has been helpful. I don’t think we’re 100 percent there yet. I think — like lots of cities — we still struggle with what’s the best way to bring this large group together and be consistent.”

Adds Jennifer Karps, the Grey to Green canopy coordinator with BES, “We do our best work when we work together. It takes a long time, but it works best when we’ve all bought into the product we put out.”

Portland Parks & Recreation has had an urban forestry division since the 1970s. However, some of those early years involved a lot of planting without a plan. The wrong kinds of trees were put in the wrong locations, resulting in damage to sidewalks, poor survival rates and more. Complicating matters is that Portland’s tree codes and ordinances require residents to care for the public street trees adjacent to their properties. In the early years, the city would plant trees without input from the local residents. They learned quickly from these mistakes, instituting an opt-in approach for new trees, while any tree removal now requires a permit and must involve a replacement.

Friends of Trees planting in Mt. Tabor Neighborhood

Friends of Trees planting in Mt. Tabor Neighborhood. Credit: Naomi Tsurumi

Helping the city in these efforts is the 22-year-old nonprofit Friends of Trees. Over the years, Friends of Trees has worked with both Urban Forestry and BES to help increase Portland’s tree canopy. There are an estimated 250,000 street trees alone in Portland, plus 10,000 acres of parkland. Since the implementation of Portland’s Grey to Green initiative, Friends of Trees’ commitment to the city’s planting efforts has gone from planting 2,240 trees during the 2008-2009 planting season to 4,663 trees in 2011-2012. In fact, the nonprofit has an $8 million, eight-year contract with BES to help plant trees as part of Grey to Green.

Friends of Trees started “as just somebody [Richard Seidman] who wanted to plant trees with his neighbors,” says Brighton West, program director for Friends of Trees. “It’s really grown from a grassroots type of level. For a long time, it was just planting street trees with Urban Forestry and getting homeowners to come out together and plant street trees, so that’s always been the model. It’s a very community-driven model.”

And, the model seems to be serving the city well. Each year, Friends of Trees coordinates Neighborhood Planting Days in many of Portland’s neighborhoods. On these days, trained volunteers help local residents plant between 150 and 250 street and yard trees. Friends of Trees then works with a cadre of volunteers, called summer inspectors, that survey the trees in the first summer to keep track of how well the new trees are doing; these trees have a 97 percent survival rate in their first year.

The biggest challenge that the program faces is getting residents to opt-in to trees. West explains that in an opt-in model for tree distribution, residents are informed that trees are available and then must reach out to Friends of Trees to request the tree, resulting in a 20-30 percent planting rate among those residents contacted. If the residents have to purchase or pay for those trees, the planting rate drops to five percent. In comparison, opt-out models in other cities — meaning citizens are told the trees are coming, but must tell the planting entity if they don’t want the tree — result in a 60 percent planting rate. Based on these conversion rates, it might appear that the opt-out model would be preferable, but since residents must care for the public trees adjacent to their property in Portland, it’s important for survival rates that the residents want the trees — even if this means a smaller percentage of trees is planted each year.

West also cautions that “the harder you make it for someone to get a tree planted, the fewer and fewer people that will do it.”

Coinciding with Friends of Trees’ neighborhood programs is Urban Forestry’s Neighborhood Tree Steward program. This program is a seven-session training course that teaches volunteers about general tree care, tree biology, tree planting, preservation and more. These volunteers then work with their Neighborhood Tree Steward Coalition to accomplish necessary urban forest projects, such as street tree pruning.

This is part of a movement in the bureau to “start looking at neighborhoods as forest management units,” says Urban Forestry’s DiSalvo. “We can talk about canopy cover for the entire city, but that doesn’t necessarily resonate with an individual who lives in one specific neighborhood.” DiSalvo relates that by doing neighborhood-specific inventories and analysis of canopies, they’ve been successful at getting neighborhood associations involved in caring about their trees and developing unique Tree Plans with action items for that community.

“We are rethinking what trees are in the city,” adds DiSalvo. “Are they landscaping or are they a liability or are they an asset? Coming up with a new method of accounting and a new way of looking at trees that really gives them value in the city and opens us up to new funding mechanisms is important.”

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