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Columbus Reveals Urban Forestry Plan

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Columbus Reveals Urban Forestry Plan
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Trees are one of the most important and efficient tools available to any city hoping to mitigate the hazards of climate change, and Columbus does not have enough of them.

Only 22% of the city is covered by tree canopy—less than Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati. But with the introduction of the city’s new Urban Forestry Master Plan, Columbus hopes to more than double its amount of trees, bringing the city to 40% canopy coverage.

“That is very ambitious, to get up to 40%,” said Rosalie Hendon. “However, that is a number that out of all of our public input was very important to the community, to get to at least 40% of cover.”

Hendon is an environmental planner for the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, and the project manager for the Urban Forestry Master Plan. The plan, which sets out a future vision for the city’s urban forest, opened for public comment on March 4, 2020—just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Ohio and the rest of the country into quarantine.

“We got very lucky, obviously just by happenstance, that our public open house was March 4 and we had 135 people in one space,” said Hendon. “That would not have been possible even a week later.”

With much of the public planning finished before quarantine started, the remaining community engagement continued online before the city was able to start drafting the plan in the summer.

“Trees are one of nature’s most powerful answers to climate change,” said Nathan Johnson, Director of Public Lands for the Ohio Environmental Council, in the plan’s public review draft. “Growing more trees and larger, stronger canopies will make Columbus more climate-resilient and help keep it cool. Strong urban canopies reduce and moderate temperatures, provide shade, reduce stormwater runoff and flooding, and, of course, store carbon.”

The plan notes that the benefits of a healthy urban forest—increasingly necessary as the climate warms—are not enjoyed equitably between Columbus neighborhoods. Neighborhood tree canopy can range from as low as 9% to as high as 41%. Portions of redlined neighborhoods like Franklinton, Milo-Grogan and South Linden have some of the lowest canopy coverage in the city.

Hendon pointed out that other factors besides tree canopy are involved in a healthy urban forest. A neighborhood like South Linden might have 21% canopy coverage, which is close to the city average, but, “there’s a lot of hard surfaces in those neighborhoods, there’s a lot more industrial zoning.”

“So yes technically they might have a higher tree canopy, but those trees might be more stressed, the residents are dealing with poorer air quality, higher temperatures, so there’s still a very strong need in those neighborhoods to invest in the trees that we have and increase that canopy,” said Hendon. “Those trees are working very hard for those residents, filtering the air, providing shade, we know that we’re only expecting to be hotter, our summers are just going to be getting hotter over the coming decades, so its important to be investing now in our urban forests, to really be looking out for the quality of life for coming decades.”

One challenge to planting all of the trees necessary for an expanded and equitable urban forest is that 70% of the current tree canopy is located on private property. It will be up to property owners to maintain most of the existing trees and to plant new ones. According to Hendon, the city will need to provide tools for residents to plant and take care of trees on their own property, starting with tree education videos featuring city arborists.

The public also pointed out to Hendon and the other forest planners that, “in some communities there’s more renter occupied properties and there’s a little bit of disconnect in that the property owner, the landholder, might not want to…take on having a tree, where the renter, obviously they’re not going to plant a tree, it’s not their property, so that was a challenge that the public identified for us that we’ll need to take a good look at.”

There’s also the challenge of having accurate data. The last time Columbus completed a citywide inventory of street and park trees was 1997, said Hendon, “and so you can imagine that some things don’t change. If it was a maple in 1997, it’s still a maple today. But a lot of things obviously do change, like the size and the condition and health and all of that.”

The forest planners conducted a pilot inventory of all street trees in South Linden over the summer, gathering data on existing trees, but also identifying potential tree planting sites, “so that proactively we have this bank of planting sites that we’re able to plant out and we can kind of plan longer term and create a planting plan.”

Growing a healthy, equitable urban forest for Columbus will really be a community-driven effort, said Hendon, and the city’s goal is to be a partner in that effort. One recommendation for ensuring community engagement is the creation of a Columbus tree coalition.

“This is not an existing group,” said Hendon. “It’s something that Columbus doesn’t have yet. Cleveland has a tree coalition and I think that was part of the thinking, was that it would be great to have a community organization that could really help unify some tree planting efforts on a citywide scale.”

Hendon said the public comment period for the Urban Forestry Master Plan will continue until the end of March. After that, the plan will be presented to the Recreation and Parks Commission and the City Council for their support before implementation can officially begin.

For more information, visit columbusufmp.org.

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