Back to Our Roots: Thriving Communities from Urban Forestry

Trees play a vital role in a healthy urban environment by providing city streets with shade, wildlife habitat and beauty, among many other benefits. Anyone who has ever visited a neighborhood that has lost its tree canopy due to disease, rampant urban development or simple neglect knows what a difference this greenery makes to the quality of city life.

Grand Rapids is fortunate to have an abundance of trees within its city boundaries. That’s largely due to the efforts of the Forestry division of the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, which inventories and maintains an estimated 62,000 street trees and 20,000 park and cemetery trees throughout the city.

Grand Rapids has steadily increased its greenery for more than a decade. In the early 2000s, the City had seven certified arboretums. Today, that total stands at 13, and efforts are underway to achieve arboretum status for several cemeteries. Visit Oak Hill or Greenwood on a sunny afternoon to understand the value of forested city property.

The 2011 Green Grand Rapids amendment to the City’s Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan established a 40 percent tree canopy goal for Grand Rapids. In the years that followed, total tree canopy rose to 34 percent. The GR Parks and Recreation Department had every intention of continuing this forward momentum.

In 2016, the Forestry division logged all street, park and cemetery trees. From that inventory, it’s now addressing all trees it has identified as “Priority 1” for removal or pruning. Beyond this routine maintenance and to reach its 40 percent canopy goal, the 2015 Tree Canopy Analysis identified that over 65 percent of plantable area exists – on private residential property.

Recognizing the need to engage citizens in the overall effort of planting and young tree care, Grand Rapids Forestry and the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks launched the Urban Forest Project with core funding from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The effort offers residents hands-on opportunities, from planting to pruning, to learn about and directly impact the City’s urban forest. The Urban Forest Project has certified almost 100 Citizens Foresters since its inception.

The Urban Forest Project now reaches out directly to property owners and community organizations to encourage them to plant more trees, offering volunteer assistance to help sustain the trees’ ongoing health and maturation. Other nonprofit and community organizations likewise are becoming involved.

The vision at work here is to make calculated, data-driven decisions to sustain healthy urban forestry, moving from a reactive to a proactive approach to creating a sustainable tree management model.

The Forestry division handles a multitude of tree-related issues, including the removal of trees that pose a threat to public

health and safety; providing 24-hour emergency response services to tree-related emergencies; and, in recent years, treating more than 1,400 of the City’s ash trees to protect them against the Emerald Ash Borer. Clearly, hands-on support from community members will make a critical difference in helping Grand Rapids reach that 40 percent tree canopy goal.

The division has partnered with Building Bridges Inc., a program that employs local at-risk youth to work within their own neighborhoods to plant close to 1,000 street trees each year in the City of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss understands the social, economic and environmental benefits trees provide to her city. As part of her Mayor’s Greening Initiative, Mayor Bliss will host – along with the Forestry division and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks – a tree planting event on Arbor Day, Saturday, April 28th. As with last year’s event, the goal is to plant hundreds of trees in Grand Rapids, with the help of community and corporate volunteers.

To find out how you can get involved, check out the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks website for details on this year’s event.

By Chuck Otto, USGBC-WM Staff Writer