Saving Charlotte’s Trees
Charlotte still merits the title “City of Trees.” But as development downs more of them, city officials and conservationists work to plant seeds of new growth.
What’s the value of this tree, the one that towers above me? I’m sitting on the lawn of the Johnston YMCA, beneath a willow oak that’s more than 70 years old. The oak, planted when this YMCA served local textile workers, is so big that three adults couldn’t join hands around its trunk. Underneath are enough picnic tables and Adirondack chairs to fit more than 100 people in its shade. The YMCA announced plans in May to sell this property—one of the neighborhood’s last green spaces, often called NoDa’s front porch—and no one knows what’ll happen to this tree.
It’s easy to appraise the worth of expensive things but harder for priceless ones. Like this tree. The nightmare for tree advocates is that a developer will see this willow oak as an impediment to condos or another mixed-use mid-rise. As of July, nearly 1,600 people had signed a petition that pleads with the future developer—whoever it’ll be—to find space for this tree in their plans.
The NoDa oak tree is a symbol of a larger problem: How can Charlotte save its dwindling tree canopy during a time of rapid growth? How do we teach the value of a tree when we’re more attuned to the price of a condo?
A new tree assessment, a joint effort of the City of Charlotte and TreesCharlotte, will be the first in four years. At press time, results were expected in late summer. The last one, which covered 2012 to 2018, showed a loss of a quarter-million trees—the equivalent of losing three football fields’ worth of trees every day. The new assessment will likely show these trends continuing, possibly accelerating.
Public and private groups are on a mission to save our trees. New city regulations force developers and residents to consider the importance of a tree before cutting it down. Tree planting efforts give thousands of trees away while they educate recipients about the value of their gift. The future of our canopy may rely on these groups’ ability to do the impossible: put a price tag on a tree.
Ask 10 people for the value of a tree, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Someone might tell you how the shade of trees can lower home air-conditioning costs by 35% or reduce surface temperatures by 45 degrees. Someone else might tell you how one oak tree consumes 40,000 gallons of stormwater runoff in a year, which reduces flooding, erosion, and the effects of drought. Other people might mention the mental health benefits of trees or how trees cut crime: Study results associate a 10% increase in tree canopy with a 12% decrease in crime. Pick your reason. They’re all right.
An Arbor Day Foundation calculator estimates the financial value of a tree. A willow oak with a 45-inch diameter provides $298 in benefit annually. The figure accounts for stormwater absorption, reduced energy usage, and improved air quality. Multiply that by the oak’s 100-year lifespan, then consider those 250,000 trees we recently lost.
Even considering its recent decline, Charlotte’s tree canopy stands at 45%. Most cities fare worse: Tampa’s tree canopy is 36%, Philadelphia’s is 20%, Boston’s is 18%, and Chicago’s is 17%. The two cities often mentioned as shining examples of tree canopy are Charlotte and Atlanta, which edges us at 46.5%.
The big surprise in the 2018 assessment wasn’t just the number of trees lost but where those trees came down: 65% of tree loss happened lot by lot in residential areas. The neighborhoods that saw the most drastic decreases were Myers Park, Dilworth, Eastover, and Chantilly. These areas have an unsustainable combination: They’re beloved for their tree cover and popular for infill development. At this pace, the latter may come at the expense of the former.
“We’re declining (in tree canopy). We’re not maintaining. We’re still booming in development in all markets, and permitting is at a record level,” says Timothy Porter, chief urban forester for the City of Charlotte. “The needle is going the wrong way.”
Tabitha Warren, a city communications specialist, can tell you exactly where she was when she decided to move here: under the willow oaks of Myers Park. She’d just completed her master’s degree at Winthrop University and planned to return home to Kentucky. Before she left, she took a drive through Charlotte and wound through Queens Road West.
“I was like, ‘I have to live here, I have to live here, and I have to live near Queens Road West,’” she says. “I was able to find a cheap little apartment in Dilworth across from Ed’s Tavern, and I walked those streets in Dilworth, in Myers Park, multiple times a week. You feel like you’re in a tunnel, like you’re being hugged by these trees. It’s the whole reason I wound up here—the trees.”
I laugh as Warren shares her story. Mine is remarkably similar. My first trip to Charlotte involved a real estate agent who introduced me to the city with a drive down Queens Road West. “Is all of Charlotte like this?” I asked him as I craned my neck upward.
Many Charlotte origin stories begin under those towering oaks. Leigh Bryant, real estate agent and CEO of On The Move Charlotte, has sold houses here for 23 years. Back when agents drove clients around on house showings, Bryant would wind along Queens Road West if possible. Clients loved it. Bryant has had clients move to Charlotte for its trees alone. It’s funny that the road with such elegant homes is known instead for the trees that tower over them.
But Myers Park wasn’t always a tree mecca. In the early 1900s, the land was cotton fields, barely a tree in sight. When it was developed into the suburb of Myers Park in 1911, the first houses rose from fields of dirt. To increase their value, neighborhood developers had 54 small willow oak trees dug up from other parts of the county and replanted on Queens Road West and Queens Road during the winter of 1915-16.
Today, the story of Myers Park is one of inspiration and caution. The inspiration is obvious: Through planting, treeless fields transformed into a leafy, shaded neighborhood. Look closely, however, and you spot the cautionary tale. Developers planted mostly one species, willow oak, at the same age. Monoculture means that those trees are susceptible to the same diseases and pests (remember the havoc of cankerworms?). And those majestic willow oaks also share a century-long lifespan set to end (gulp) about now.
“Myers Park is a story about the need to be smart and intentional,” says City Arborist Laurie Reid, one of 28 full-time arborists the city government employs. “It’s what we’re trying to do as a city, to be thoughtful about what we’re putting in the ground: the right tree, the right place, and then taking care of it.”
“We can’t just plant trees and walk away,” Porter says.
The city’s tree canopy strategy involves planting new trees and discouraging the unnecessary removal of existing ones. The biggest tool to accomplish this is the Unified Development Ordinance, which went into effect in June. Most people know the UDO as the ordinance that brings multi-family housing to some single-family neighborhoods. Fewer people know that the UDO also introduced stronger tree-protection measures than the city’s ever had. Now, developers and residents must consider trees in their plans whether they’re building condos or an addition.
Regulating trees is tricky business. On one side are tree advocates who understand that our city is healthier, happier, and more beautiful with trees. On the other are developers and urbanists who understand that higher-density neighborhoods are key to smart growth and affordable housing. In the middle is Porter, who worked with both sides to negotiate UDO tree regulations.
“Development is a good thing. … It’s helping Charlotte grow, helping us achieve some of the other goals we have around housing density and quality of life,” Porter says. “Balancing that with preservation and planting is a difficult thing, but that’s needed, too.”
The UDO created a compromise that left both sides slightly displeased—a sign of successful negotiation. The major change is the regulation of heritage trees, native species with trunk diameters of 30 inches or more. Residents and developers now need a permit to cut down a healthy heritage tree. Developers must pay a mitigation fee of $1,500 to remove each heritage tree; property owners pay $500. (Unhealthy trees do not require a permit or fee to remove.) Both developers and property owners who remove a heritage tree must plant a new tree on the property in a kind of arboreal penance. When trees fall in one spot, new trees must rise elsewhere.
Most developers wouldn’t blink at a $1,500 fee to remove a single tree that stands in the way of profitable plans—which isn’t great news for that immense oak tree in NoDa. For large projects on forested land, however, that figure compounds quickly. A developer of a 120-acre site recently had a mitigation fee of $60,000, in addition to survey costs.
But the UDO offers a carrot as well as a stick. Planting additional trees earns credits that offset these fees. Planting six trees can balance a developer’s cost of removing one. Developers also must meet tree canopy requirements, and large heritage trees count double toward them, which brings great news for the Johnston Y oak. The idea is that heritage trees need financial incentives and penalties if we’re going to save them.
The proceeds from tree-removal fees go to the Canopy Care Fund, which will help plant and maintain trees, mostly in low-income neighborhoods. Tree equity is a hot topic in the industry due to correlations between high-income areas and lush tree canopy, and high-crime areas and fewer trees. Nationally, neighborhoods with higher poverty rates have about 41% less tree canopy than wealthier ones. (One recent tree equity study was titled, “Trees Grow on Money.” The correlation between the towering oaks of Myers Park and the affluence below them is not coincidental.) While the most dramatic tree decreases have been in the wedge of south Charlotte, the crescent had less canopy to begin with, especially in the west and north. The Canopy Care Fund will provide care for existing trees and planting new ones in other neighborhoods to try to make sure everyone, regardless of economic status, gets the benefit of a tree canopy.
It takes about 20 years for a new tree to create significant cover, so keeping established trees is the best strategy to preserve the canopy. But if development stopped tomorrow, trees would still fall due to age, disease, and storms. The second part of the city’s strategy, then, is to plant new ones. Enter TreesCharlotte.
TreesCharlotte, a private organization funded in part by the city, offers residents free trees to plant at home, schools, and houses of worship. Over the past year, it’s planted and distributed nearly 5,600. These aren’t the tiny saplings of most tree giveaways; these are two-to-three-year-old trees with established roots, and people can choose from at least 40 native or naturalized species. Any Charlotte resident can take two trees per tree adoption event, and before they take it home, they get a lesson from a certified arborist about how and where to plant them. At the event, residents can even consult with an arborist for free about the best place in their yard for their new trees. It means the right tree gets planted in the right place and contributes to a diverse canopy.
The word choice of TreesCharlotte is telling. It doesn’t refer to these events as tree giveaways but as tree adoption events. Each tree comes with a biodegradable tag that gives their new owners the chance to name their new tree. Kids love it; they name trees after superheroes, Sesame Street characters, and best friends.
“When you think about how hard trees work for us—they give and they give and they give—we want to make sure people understand that these are living things that require care and watering,” says Jane Singleton Myers, TreesCharlotte’s executive director.
This isn’t just about giving away trees but investing in individual and community wellness. Myers mentions a study that shows how exposure to green spaces can reduce the effects of ADHD, so planting trees outside a school can help the children inside learn better. Also, more trees mean less heat, and less heat can reduce effects of diabetes and asthma, conditions more prevalent in lower-income communities. Strategic tree plantings can be a form of public health.
“There’s research that people drive 6 to 8 miles per hour slower down a tree-lined street,” Myers says. “There’s a peacefulness around trees. We get mental health benefits when we feel more settled, and we feel happier and healthier in a treed community.”
Planting trees isn’t the only way residents can support the tree canopy. The City of Charlotte unveiled Tree by Tree last year, a website that lets residents enter the trees in their own yards or neighborhood to help the city maintain its survey.
“We’d love to see people get together with their neighbors for a little tree-mapping event, enjoy some time together,” says Natasha Warren, program manager for the city’s arborist office. “It spurs curiosity, gives people a connection with their trees.”
What’s the value of a tree? What’s the value of this tree, the one that towers above me? I’m sitting on a bench in Veterans Park in Plaza Midwood, next to my favorite Charlotte tree. It’s a huge willow oak by the tennis courts. My husband and I—who, in our 40s, still judge a tree by its suitability for Robin Hood-style treehouses—adore it. It’s at the halfway mark of our favorite walking route, a respite of shade before the trip home. Every time, I tell him, “I love this tree.” The gleam in his eye tells me that he’s building another hypothetical treehouse.
I asked everyone I interviewed about their favorite local tree. For Tabitha Warren, it’s a bigleaf magnolia in Myers Park off Hermitage Road. For Myers, it’s a ginkgo by the welcome center at Queens University. For Reid, it’s a dawn redwood in her front yard named Ruby. Their smiles as they tell me about their favorite trees make it seem like they describe a friend.
Everyone has a tree story, Myers tells me. The tree at their grandparents’ house they climbed as a kid; the tree they camped under; the tree with the tire swing. For many, the value of a tree is felt before it’s understood. Studies and calculators attempt to prove what we’ve known all along: that trees are important, that our lives depend on them. The future of our canopy relies on our willingness to prioritize what’s priceless, even if we have to pretend it has a price tag.
Jen Tota McGivney is a writer in Charlotte.