Washington, D.C. – Tree-lined Avenues

In July 2011, Mayor Vincent Gray announced his Sustainable D.C. initiative, which outlines a series of sustainability goals — from energy consumption to green jobs — that the city wishes to reach by 2032. This new initiative is “crafted for and by the city’s diverse and knowledgeable community with the ultimate goal of making D.C. more socially equitable, environmentally responsible and economically competitive.” Since the 2011 announcement, a number of working groups, involving more than 700 people, were created to offer recommendations for the District’s sustainability plan, and in April 2012, the city unveiled its “A Vision for a Sustainable D.C.”[1] This vision contained very specific goals for the District’s tree canopy and parkland: a tree canopy of 40 percent, which was set as a goal a few years earlier, and a natural space within a 10-minute walk of every resident by 2032.[2] With approximately 130,000 street trees and other public trees — about nine percent of the city’s total canopy — under its purview, the District Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) will play an important role in helping the city reach this goal.

“One thing we find as a common thread is everyone loves the trees on their street, no matter what neighborhood you go to,” says John Thomas, associate director of UFA. “We’ve had people say, “We’ll give up our street being paved to protect the trees.’ More and more people seem to be looking at what it would take to keep the trees around.”

Trees shade historic homes in Georgetown

Trees shade historic homes in Georgetown. Credit: Wknight94

The District’s street tree program dates back to 1860 when the city established its unique “public parking” — city-owned green strips along the front of every lawn. Unlike many other cities that maintain rights of way, which are often greenspaces between a roadway and a sidewalk, the District’s parking strips may not have a sidewalk differentiating them from a person’s yard. These strips resulted from a combination of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s vision of a capital with tree-lined streets and a superintendent of streets who wanted a buffer between the dust of the streets and his house. The city planted thousands of street trees in these spaces in the late 1800s, and for more than a century, maintaining the District’s street trees was the responsibility of the Department of Public Works. Then, in 2000, that responsibility shifted to the newly formed District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

Moving to DDOT was a good move, Thomas says. “It allows us to put more emphasis on the importance of street trees and protection of trees in projects,” such as road widening or development projects, he relates. “We’re part of the team that’s making those decisions, and there usually seems to be funding available to do street maintenance projects.” As part of DDOT, a portion of UFA’s funding comes from the city’s fees to use public spaces, such as when restaurants rent sidewalk space or parking space costs.

UFA operates on a seven to 10-year pruning cycle and plants 4,500 new trees each year. Thomas relates that having constant maintenance as a result of consistent funding is better than having a huge influx of funding one year with minimal funding a year or two later.

In D.C., many partners work together to maintain the city’s canopy, from UFA to others that include Casey Trees, the Council of Governments, Earth Conservation Corporation, Trees for Capital Hill, Trees for Georgetown and Washington Parks and People.

Previous: Washington, D.C. – Introduction                                           Next: Washington, D.C. – Canopy Concerns



[1] The District of Columbia. Sustainable D.C. What Is Sustainable D.C.? http://sustainable.dc.gov/page/what-sustainable-dc (accessed Sept. 19, 2012).

[2] The District of Columbia. Sustainable D.C. A Vision for a Sustainable D.C. http://sustainable.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/sustainable/publication/attachments/sustainable%20DC%20Vision%20Plan%202.2.pdf (accessed Sept. 19, 2012).