We have come a long way from the days of President Thomas Jefferson planting the first street trees, Lombardy poplars along Pennsylvania Ave. from the Capitol to the White House. With new office buildings and condos being built throughout the city, especially along the H Street corridor and the ever-expanding Navy Yard, the city’s Urban Forestry Division (part of the DC Department of Transportation) has a monumental task to keep up with planting and preserving the street trees. The challenges are many, and the city arborists are hard at work inspecting and taking action to not only plant new trees, but also give the best care they can to existing urban street trees.
Jack Chapman, Supervisory Urban Forester, and Earl Eutster, Chief Urban Forester, comments, “there is not a more dedicated crew of DC workers than those at the Urban Forestry Division.” The division employs 41 people who take on a long list of responsibilities protecting our urban canopy of trees.
The Urban Tree Box
The ideal plan for adding trees to the developed landscape in areas like the Navy Yard is to have a tree box every 30 feet along the sidewalk. Sometimes the tree box is sacrificed for other urban necessities, like a bus stop or traffic cutout. The wider sidewalks incorporated into the Navy Yard design have allowed for many urban tree boxes and there are now over 15 different tree species that have been planted in the 339-acre area.
Developers sometimes build and plant the new tree boxes. The city has a standard that must be met and urban foresters inspect the soil mix before a tree is planted. The type of tree that is chosen by the developer and also must be approved by the Urban Forestry Division.
Over 8,000 trees are planted each year in the city by the urban foresters. The arborist assigned to the specific area, usually organized by our city wards, will consider a number of factors before choosing a tree. For instance, how close is the tree box to the building to give the tree space to spread out as it grows taller? Would a medium size tree do better than a great oak? In addition to the specific needs of a location, the new philosophy in urban street trees is to create diversity in the trees planted.
When Dutch elm disease reached the United States in the 1960s, the fungus attacked and killed many of the mature elms in our area. Streets that were once lined with elms suddenly lost all of their trees in a single blow. As a result, the new rule is to not plant the same species over and over, but to choose a variety of trees to ensure a healthy future. Ecologically, this procedure makes good sense, but it may not be quite so pleasing in landscape design.
Challenges to the Trees
The biggest challenge to street trees in non-residential areas like the H Street Corridor and the Navy Yard is to keep the trees watered. There is no law that requires a restaurant, office, or developer to provide water once the tree is planted. A new tree needs lots and lots of water as it establishes its root system. Especially with DC getting hotter every summer, and in periods of little rain, the new trees are at the mercy of residents to help them out.
For example, a row of locust trees on First Street, SE, a block from Nationals Park, is suffering from lack of water and perhaps disease. On the other side of the street, the trees are thriving. Some of the condo buildings water the tree boxes in front of their building, knowing that healthy trees enhance the neighborhood. Local Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) water the public spaces like the ones on First Street. But, there are some blocks in the Navy Yard where businesses are not stepping up.
Other challenges include merchants who throw dirty water on the trees, or prune the trees so that their signs are more visible. The Urban Forestry Division has the authority to fine businesses or individuals that interfere with the health of the trees, but the division has to have solid evidence to present in court to issue a violation, and that is sometimes hard to obtain.
What you can do to help
It takes a village to keep our tree-lined streets healthy and happy. The Urban Forestry Division really wants you to help them keep the trees growing. If you see a tree with a branch broken or you are concerned about the health of a tree in a box, call 311 to report it. You don’t have to live on the street to make that call. Within 24 hours, the arborist assigned to the area will inspect the situation and if it’s an emergency, the tree will be immediately cared for. Otherwise, the tree will be put on the maintenance list for attention. The arborist will communicate with you about the plan of action decided upon.
Unfortunately, the wait for tree service can be longer than we would like. The season for planting trees only runs (weather permitting) from early October through early April. Depending on timing, some tree boxes can wait an entire year before being planted. If you have reported a street tree problem, and there hasn’t been the follow-up you expected, the urban foresters say call again. They are very dedicated to caring for the trees. Thanks to the work of Casey Trees, the city now has a complete inventory of every public tree and the Urban Forestry Division works to keep it up to date. The data is helping the city make wiser decisions about DC’s tree canopy. Casey a Washington D.C. based nonprofit, established in 2002, committed to restoring, enhancing and protecting the tree canopy of the nation’s capital.
If you see a tree in need, say something. Encourage your local businesses to help out in watering and caring for the trees. Together we can make our new developed neighborhoods filled with green healthy trees.
Rindy O’Brien has worked with arborists and foresters over several decades in
Washington and Missouri. For comments, she can be reached at [email protected]