Trees are aesthetically pleasing and provide numerous environmental and social benefits. As a result, when the City of Charlotte embarked on the goal to establish a citywide 50% tree canopy coverage area by 2050, it sounded great. It still does. But was it ever realistic?
Probably not, considering that even as recently as five years ago, American Forests, a well-respected forest advocacy group, determined that a 40% tree canopy goal for major cities should not be the universal benchmark because the research no longer supported it. Instead, it has been determined that a more “nuanced” approach to tree maintenance and preservation is required.
So why do civic leaders continue to base long-range goals on catchphrases and sound bites and what sells? That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be bold with our expectations. We should. But, modern life in 2022 America is more complex than it has ever been. Let’s establish a vision that makes sense and actually makes a difference.
What’s an achievable goal with respect to tree canopy?
When last measured, about four years ago, Charlotte’s canopy was calculated to be at about 45%. This is among the highest for all major metropolitan areas. This would indicate we are doing some things correctly and they seem to be working.
In fact, many of those trees that were planted in and around new housing developments following the Great Recession are now reaching maturity, replacing others that are nearing the end of their life cycles. This is a reminder that canopy goals are a moving target.
The topic of trees can be an emotional issue and their very presence, as pointed out earlier, provide intrinsic value in many ways. However, our society struggles with a myriad of challenges and sometimes the very location of a stand of trees or even a single tree can strain our ability to meet the needs brought on by other priorities such as production of affordable housing, enhancement and connectivity of transportation systems, and ensuring public safety.
Decision-makers need to take into consideration these other factors when enacting and promulgating new development regulations with respect to trees.
For example, cluster development which allows for higher densities while preserving more open space, thereby potential tree habitat, appears to no longer be an available option under the new rules proposed in the draft Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). City Council should rethink this provision as the document works its way through the process.
Also, a 2019 study commissioned by Trees Charlotte and performed by the University of Vermont pointed to other contributing factors. Specifically, with respect to canopy loss the report stated: “Some of this loss was due to new construction, but there are thousands of examples of individual trees being removed on residential sites with no apparent signs of construction. Storms, disease, tree age, or changes in attitudes to tree canopy could all play a role.”
Another provision in the draft UDO attempts to address this by forcing landowners removing trees on their properties to obtain permits and risk heavy fines for not doing so. This type of heavy-handed approach is not likely to result in much success.
We encourage city leaders to promote effective ways of maintaining and expanding, where feasible, Charlotte’s tree canopy while ensuring other important priorities are given appropriate and corresponding value.
A comprehensive tree preservation strategy requires more than compliance with standards, which may be overly prescriptive. Instead, collaboration between parties through effective communication with built-in flexibility are a necessity.
Hayden is board chair of the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition (REBIC) in Charlotte.