Rooted: Trees Give the City Its Soul

In a New South city known for tearing down buildings in the name of progress, we choose to keep our trees. And they give the city its soul


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George stands at one end of a long line of locals who have invested in the city’s trees. A little more than a century ago, John Myers owned a nearly treeless cotton field across from today’s Manor Theatre on Providence Road. He planted rows of trees and filled the front yard of his “country home” with flowers and shrubs. Locals started calling it “Myers Park.” When Myers decided to turn his farm into a suburb for those wealthy enough to have two homes, one in the city and one in the country, he called on John Nolen. 

Nolen, known for planning cities from San Diego to Savannah, uprooted hundreds of small trees from more rural areas—today’s Cotswold and Oakhurst—and hauled them to the new suburb in the backs of pickup trucks. He ignored the popular grid plans and went well beyond the average planner of the time, naming the specific trees and flowers to be planted.

Not everyone has been as thoughtful. Around the same time Nolen was planning and planting in Myers Park, Charlotte was growing at an unruly pace. The electric trolley and birth of Dilworth meant the start of a suburban boom. The Norfolk and Southern Railroad arrived a couple of years later, bringing more people, more growth.

Progress has always been at the forefront of the city’s struggle to protect trees. Charles Bland, Charlotte’s mayor from 1911-1915, is known for his support of “The Great White Way,” a project led by James B. Duke and the Southern Power Company, now Duke Energy.

Brilliant streetlamps, all in a row along Tryon Street, would mimic that of New York City in a sort of B-list Broadway. A visiting landscape architect, appropriately named Paul B. Forest, protested the Way. He called it “the grossest error.” But in the winter of 1912, the trees along Tryon came down.

Today, rows of healthy trees intertwine with streetlights along East Bland Street in South End. And Myers Park is the city’s most beautiful neighborhood, shaded and coveted.

Trees are the life of the Charlotte party. One of the first things out-of-towners notice about the city is how green it is—how many trees we have. When our families and friends visit, we can’t wait to show off Queens Road West and tunnel through its cathedral canopy. We have 37 miles of developed greenway that, without trees, would be a frying pan in the summer. There’s a cellphone tower behind the Harris YMCA designed to look like a tree. And in our airport’s terminal, just before visitors claim their bags, is an indoor row of Bradford pears.

According to a “tree inventory” taken by American Forests, the oldest nonprofit tree conservancy in the country, Charlotte has 215 species of trees. Not surprisingly, willow oaks and crepe myrtles are found most often. We have an estimated 180,000 street trees—the trees growing between the sidewalks and curbs. And our urban canopy covers 46 percent of the city.  Our visitor center suggests taking in Fourth Ward’s tree canopy while on a horse-drawn carriage tour as number 17 of 101 fun things to do in Charlotte. And five years ago, when CNN Money ranked the top 100 cities to live in and launch a business, Charlotte ranked eighth. The reasons? “This national financial hub is home to big names like Wachovia and Bank of America, but the oak-tree-lined city is also a great place to launch and grow a small business.” Trees made the opening line.

But we don’t just surround ourselves with trees; we plan entire events around them. Each year, the Charlotte Arborists Association, a nonprofit that meets bimonthly to talk trees, sponsors a Tree Climbing Competition in Freedom Park. Fifty-one climbers attended this year, and the winner for the men, Cormac Nagan, owns Aerial Tree Works in Durham—two-and-a-half hours away. 

We have fun with our trees and work hard to keep them around. According to city arborist Don McSween, Charlotte has the highest canopy tree cover of any major city in the nation. For every seven Charlotteans, there’s one public tree. And American Forests named Charlotte one of the 10 best cities for urban forests, a distinction we share with notably lush cities like Portland and Seattle.

It takes a lot of effort to maintain that distinction. Back in 1974, Charlotte hired its first city arborist, responsible for managing the street-tree program and tracking each tree’s location, species, age, and condition. McSween and his staff make up the 12-member Charlotte Tree Advisory Commission. Our tree ordinance, established in 1978, requires developers to maintain 10 percent of the trees found on each lot. It’s set up to protect “heritage” trees, like the trees listed on the state or national champion lists and “specimen” trees, impressive examples of a particular species.

We live in one of the top 10 fastest-growing areas in the nation. From 1985 to 2008, strip malls surged, main drags were widened, and parking lots popped up everywhere. The city grew by 39 percent. Development led to the loss of nearly half of our trees. To avoid that kind of crushing loss in the future, City Council set a goal in 2011 to increase the tree canopy to 50 percent shade coverage by 2050.

We’re at 46 percent now. And development aside, some of the major parts of the canopy—like many of the trees in Myers Park—are getting old and may fall soon. It’s a lofty goal if the population continues to grow at the rate it has over the past few decades. More people means more roads, more lot clearing for more P. F. Changs and malls.  

We invite your responses and discussion. Please refrain from personal attacks, profanity, commercial promotion, or non sequiturs.

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