"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." - Thoreau

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Community Renewal Should Include Tree Renewal

"If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude." - Colin Powell (stated in the Neighborhood Plus Plan presentation of February 2015).

The reports keep coming from various sources to throw light on the impacts of poverty to the quality of life and sustainability of Dallas.  In February, a report on Dallas poverty was a waking jolt to some, including myself.  Today, a news article by Brandon Formby for the Dallas Morning News brought attention to how transportation issues should be a focal point in how city officials and local planners need to strategize for the future of poor and blighted neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood Plus initiative presented to the Council in February is by official accounts a representation of a "change of our culture" at City Hall to find solutions to community problems. I am as happy as any person to be a part of a community-wide team for positive efforts in planning, designing, and managing solutions.  The effort and solutions will be a community-wide task.  

The Plan itself has the goal of fostering vital neighborhoods and it focuses on six key strategies for change:

  • Create a collective impact framework.  On this foundation, we take measured steps to:
  • Alleviate poverty.
  • Fight blight.
  • Attract and maintain the Middle Class.
  • Expand homeownership.
  • Enhance rental options.
Planners and foresters who have been researching the effects of urban forestry on social issues like poverty and crime recognize that neighborhood interaction with their local trees and landscapes can have a significant positive impact on that community.  It is my hope the improvements of these neighborhoods will not bring long-term sacrifices of substantial community trees for short term gains. In order to sustain our forest canopy, urban forest management should, in my mind, be part of the many tasks placed on the table in the collective impact framework.  It should not be lost in the shuffle of other social issues because of a perception of irrelevance.  It's a very wrong perception.

A national task force called the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC) stated that urban forestry is not a single issue, but rather a platform of many issues.  Correctly stated, urban forestry is a "platform that addresses numerous concerns, not a single issue that is divorced from all other factors that impact a community's well being." It should not be dumbed down to a cause for 'treehuggers' trying to save pretty trees. Any such emphasis is a denial of a greater issue and dismissal of a complex range of scientific research.  

Restoration and renewal from blight does not require the sacrifice of our natural resources but requires comprehensive managed approaches for long-range goals of community woodlands and 'open spaces' for decades to come. These trees are vital to any initiative we create. There are trees that must be removed while others are carefully managed.  New trees will be planted, but how and where must be determined.  But we must also recognize the other issues like utility vegetation management, and recognize the cost of tree management of declining trees for a single property owner can be difficult to address on their own.  Keeping juvenile and invasive trees down along fence lines can also help restore a positive image for a neighborhoods. But this takes managed efforts by someone. Solutions found through neighborhood and city communication should be sought.  Master plans for neighborhoods must include the maintenance and installation of green infrastructure as well as the maintenance and installation of grey infrastructure. Community woodland growth is at the root of this renewal.

Green Cities: Good Health  (Urban Forestry Research link)

We should consider fundamental issues such as crime prevention by forestry, very real forest benefits regarding neighborhood health, youth and urban nature experiences, community behavior (and habits) toward nature, and community interaction with nature stewardship.  We should consider the economic development benefits of our trees in restoring our neighborhoods, and utilizing green infrastructure to replace, or augment, grey infrastructure.

If we lose a considerable number of trees to new construction, the method for renewal needs to be established for the long-term replenishment of the local forest canopy, but the process should include the people in the community.  Our tree communities have been surviving on old habits and theories of planning and landscape architecture that have long been outdated and not serving the trees, or us, well.  We need to stop making the same mistakes in landscaping and follow goal-minded efforts in tree protection and replacement. Improving our neighborhoods for the future means consolidating sound forest science with open-minded urban planning.  Our engineering should also learn to incorporate green infrastructure.

Landscape and tree ordinances will not be the catalyst to neighborhood revitalization but can be useful tools for achieving a management end. Neighborhood master plans can guide communities to vibrant neighborhoods for decades to come when the neighbors learn of the value of their trees, invest their efforts and passion for their neighborhoods, and recognize that what we plant today will bear fruit for generations to come.  The trees can outlast us all.

Much like climate change, I can be ignored on these matters, but the science can not.  I suggest we look to the future and plan wisely.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Community Forest and Vegetation Management

I was intrigued with the Council briefing on Vegetation Management given by ONCOR on Wednesday.  The company has sure come a long way in learning to communicate with the neighborhoods and City Hall; all the way to making some folks just giddy about how their trees are 'vegetation managed.'

Frankly, I'm supportive of ONCOR as they have a difficult job with an almost impossible task of trying to make everyone happy.  They provide a necessary service. Sure, they're very jealous about keeping the good humor of the Public Utility Commission, and for good reason.  It's not like Jim Bob on Main Street is going to fine them millions for poor performance and power failures.  The PUC, on the other hand, has teeth. It's difficult to criticize the utility provider in general. However, I have had a few cases over the years where I have criticized some of the work of their contractors, and I'm sure I will still find moments of disfavor.  I would like a more tree species-specific strategy, but they have their reasons for following their path and I don't intend to debate them. But we also need to remember our history goes far back and I respectfully support them and know that everyone is entitled to improve themselves.  ONCOR does learn and adapt.

They have lots of arborists fanning out across town to talk with homeowners where the neighborhood trees are about to be pruned.  Yes, they are, for the most part, being pruned, not 'massacred.'   We can talk about degrees of damage, appearances, and longevity of trees, but I'm not interested in covering this in this article.  I'd like to focus on the positives of their strategy.  I'm going somewhere with this.

This communication process with the neighbors by ONCOR is the beginning, middle, and end of their process.  I give them much credit for emphasizing this forestry communication because it's the public interaction and education that can make their efforts successful. But as far as they have gone, it's still not enough.

However, the additional responsibility to the community is not with ONCOR.  This needs a greater team effort.

Is this good?


The City of Dallas, non-profits and environmental groups, developers, other utilities, and neighborhood activists should learn from this process. I'm not saying that ONCOR invented this process, and it's not perfect and it is capable of improvement.  Utility vegetation management is just one branch of community forest management that is conducted in neighborhoods across the city.  As this utility has learned, each neighborhood is different in the level of community activism and in the scale of work to be completed.  When homeowners are educated about their resource, and become more invested in the forest around them, they will tend to better understand how the trees and the rest of the green infrastructure provide a great value to their homes and their personal health, but also a great responsibility on themselves.  But this responsibility does not need to be feared.

Forest management happens everywhere across Dallas on a daily basis but is rarely recognized as such.  The work is conducted by utility crews, city crews, and mostly by private tree services, landscapers and homeowners.  The distinction in all of this is there is no central standard guiding them unless self-imposed.  Homeowners do not tend to recognize themselves as tree stewards, but when they call for assistance with the tree on their property, they are directing a tree service (if they are wise enough to call one) to care for the tree.  The large mature shade tree is a great responsibility and investment for a homeowner.  But that tree also provides values that are sometimes considered incalculable.  Well, we're doing better now at calculating the real values of trees to our communities thanks to partnerships between private interests and public offices which can benefit from the information.

The Dallas community forest has many masters, and many protectors, and many caretakers.  It has many inhabitants, comprised of many species. It provides many services for our public health, safety and welfare. What it does not have is a unified goal and management plan from which we are guided in its care.  We do not have dedicated resources, best management plans, directives or regional (neighborhood) goals. These are not products of ordinance but they can be accomplished by determination of the community to oversee the conservation and renewal of their forest.  Beyond amending ordinances, we should be asking ourselves if we need this direction and guidance to manage our great natural infrastructure which sustains us.  The ordinance would only be a tool in supporting those goals.  It takes community buy-in to make any such effort successful.


The beginning of the organization of our forest objectives is talking.  Education, which is being pursued in great effort by ONCOR, needs to be intensified by other groups.  Management of the forest does not begin and end with utilities. It is only a part of a whole and this needs to be recognized.  We should also recognize the importance of each and every individual citizen in the care of this forest and equip them with the knowledge and skills to care for their part.  The City of Dallas is already blessed with a core of individuals who unify for this effort already.  We can build on this foundation.  The area has citizen foresters, master gardeners, master naturalists, volunteer park and planting groups, and other advocates, upon which to develop any programming.


We should determine if we need further regulation to help guide the protection of overhead - and underground - utilities by managing the young volunteer trees that happen to spring up below utility lines or along utility easements.. Will property owners control these perimeter trees voluntarily, or should we seek assistance through regulation? What do we do about the trees we plant near overhead utilities?  Do we address them by ordinance where we can while also restricting by regulation zones to allow only small planted nursery trees.under 20 feet in height?  

We cannot forget the underground infrastructure, be it underground man-made local and franchise utilities, or the natural tree root systems which provide the life support of the tree.  The conflicts below ground can be more severe than those above, and harder to manage without damaging, or destroying, the trees.   As our underground utility systems age, we become more protective of them and we must be more careful of how our trees interact with them.  We need to better educate ourselves to recognizing the whole tree and not just the great canopies that sustain us in the air above.

Much of what we wish to accomplish we may be able to do simply by expanding education campaigns across neighborhoods for a long duration to encourage us to change our habits.  When we look at a space for tree planting, or look at a tree at all, what would happen if we trained ourselves to project the growth of that tree 50 years into the future in our imagination?  Would we decide to avoid future conflicts by then recognizing we need to adjust our planting locations, or the trees we place in those zones?  If we can regulate ourselves, regulation by enforcement no longer becomes necessary.


The problem of utility vegetation management and the impacts to the trees along these miles of corridor will not go away quickly.  The utility company should not be expected to be the only group to take the initiative here to reduce the impact to our communities.  We can take POSITIVE steps before we would ever have to deal with the NEGATIVE impact of a severe tree pruning.   As mature trees die over time, as they will quite naturally, we need to assure new large canopy trees are not placed in proximity to those utilities.  As young invasive and fast-growing volunteer trees sprout up along, and intertwining with, fence lines and utility corridors, we should do better to control them before the trees become more difficult, and much more expensive, to remove or prune later.  It may take generations of living in this city to fully minimize the utility threats to conflicting trees, but it must begin with compromise and vision, and agreement the community is in this together.  

Management of the community forest takes all of us following established best management practices for an attainable goal.  When we have confidence in mind in these practices as a natural process for maintaining your property, the entire community will benefit and the negatives are diminished.  Your children and their children will be the beneficiaries of a safer and sustainable city.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Climate For Managing Our Community Forest

Sometimes you come across a discussion which translates directly into another topic of interest.

Local environmental advocate Ann Drumm wrote a recent essay discussing how vital it is for Texas to make ready for the inevitable changes coming our way through climate change.  As I was reading this post about becoming 'climate-resilient' in the Dallas Morning News, I realized the extent to which her stated points of focus that should draw our attention mirrored that of the needs of strong community forest management.

A task force report she described in her essay emphasized specific areas where planning for climate change impacts is needed to protect our communities from the pending onslaught of climate-induced hardships.  The report included the following:

  • land use and building design
  • public and private infrastructure investments
  • natural resources, such as the Great Trinity Forest
  • human health
  • hazard mitigation and disaster preparedness and recovery
  • economic impacts
  • public engagement.

Each and every topic described above is fundamental to establishing and practicing a strong community forest management program.  A forest management program is important in establishing goals and centralizing a course of action for sustaining the local green infrastructure and tree renewal in the community for future generations. Such management programs define our goals and purpose and intent in protecting our future.  In this context, if we do not conserve our community forest, we will segregate many of our children to an impoverished land while we profit in parceling it for our own limited economic benefits.

I am currently squarely focused in preparing for major code amendments to a landscape and tree ordinance. But it is vital we understand that an ordinance is only a limited tool used to establish benchmarks, limitations (if any), and design strategy.  The ordinances that are used to regulate development within our community can only provide guidelines for action in protecting and establishing our trees for development. How we use all of our tools - not just ordinances - will define our success. The true effectiveness of a community forest program is found in all - not one - of the focal points.  

Arguably, the most important area of concentration may be in 'public engagement.'  It's when the community can understand and grasp how the community forest protects them, and will protect their progeny in generations to come, that the other parts of the puzzle come together.  It takes social action in neighborhoods, and open positive discussion and action, to bring about positive changes in our social climate that protects the entire biotic community from the ravages of climate change.

Our inadequacy as a community is that our vision is too often limited to OUR gains, OUR economy, OUR whims and desires.  We all too often forget the long term impacts from our decisions today.  Planning is about the future, but we must also anticipate this future for more than ten years at a time.  A community forest protects us but, depending on how we plan our growth, it may segregate those who are with a protective and nurturing forest, from those we have left without one.  Neighborhood forests follow paths of prosperity, and where our communities fail, we often find the neighborhood forest in decline as well. Growth without regard of the green infrastructure around us is not growth but only a new mutation on the city landscape that will fester and remain barren.  Planting trees is not enough.  Maintaining the trees, establishing quality growth conditions, and sustaining these trees to maturity demands community interest and careful planning that reaches even into the sovereign realm of economic development.  It requires investment, management, and vision.

As our climate changes, our social climate for adaptation must also change with it.  Our process for adaptability with our forest is the same.  If we are to care for our progeny, then we must care for our community forest.  We must then nurture both.