Tacoma’s uphill battle to grow its urban tree canopy by 2030
Trees make cities more livable. Among the many benefits they provide is shade and cooling on hot days. Amid increasing heat waves driven by climate change, the role of trees in urban environments becomes more crucial every year.
In the Puget Sound region, Tacoma has fewer trees than any other city and some of the hottest neighborhoods. It also has some of the most aggressive goals to change that and to do so equitably.
Ground zero in the campaign for tree equity in Tacoma is the neighborhood near Tacoma Mall. On a recent July afternoon, heat seems to radiate off all the cement and asphalt here. On this day, it has pushed the mercury to 89 degrees. Trees and greenery are scarce. There are lots of places to drive or park – not many to walk – and very few people out and about.
“Despite what it looks like outside in this neighborhood. There are many apartment buildings nearby and a lot of residents,” says Lowell Wyse, executive director of the Tacoma Tree Foundation. He points to a large apartment building across the street from the patio of the Marlene’s Market, where we’re standing.
“A lot of people live here and a lot of people walk around the neighborhood,” he says. “This would be one of the main grocery stores for the neighborhood.”
Wyse says the market has also become a de facto community hub. People come here to meet with city officials and comment on plans for the future of the neighborhood. Wyse shares that interest as his organization is helping the City of Tacoma increase its urban canopy.
“Of any city that's measured tree coverage, Tacoma has the lowest. We're at 20 percent. And a city like Seattle, I think last I saw, had 28 percent tree coverage. So we have a lot of catching up to do,” Wyse says.
The lack of tree canopy and abundance of asphalt here leads to higher temperatures in the neighborhood. And it’s an urban growth center for the region, meaning it’s zoned for denser housing and more jobs that could easily lead to more tree loss. So the city has set a goal of planting 600 new trees here over the next two years – 300 of them this fall.
Funding for this project was provided by the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the U.S. Forest Service, administered through the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Tacoma Tree Foundation got the bid to lead the effort this fall.
The city’s overarching goal is to get to 30% canopy coverage for Tacoma by 2030. That means an aggressive acceleration of tree planting, especially in hotter neighborhoods like the one near Tacoma Mall.
“Because despite the 30% goal, this neighborhood has about a 10% tree coverage. So, it's half of the city average. And you look around and there's not a lot of plantable space,” Wyse says.
A walk around the streets here is revealing. Most of the planting strips along the sidewalks – where street trees or other greenery should be planted – have been paved over or filled in with asphalt or AstroTurf, by businesses or residents who didn’t want to deal with upkeep.
Wyse points out a paved-over planting strip that frames the asphalt lot outside a warehouse. The property is devoid of all greenery.
“The city has allowed this customer – this business -- just to fill in the planting area and not plant trees,” he says, adding that it’s a perfect candidate for a de-pave project.
One reason for all the pavement here is the history of redlining in this neighborhood: banks in the 1930s deemed investments in this area too risky. So there’s a lack of all kinds of infrastructure, including greenery.
Replanting is an equity issue, says Wyse. Because the people who live and work here are still more racially diverse and have lower incomes than in other parts of the city.
“If you go just three miles to the north or maybe two miles to the west, it would be ten or 15 degrees cooler on a day like today because of the level of tree cover that they have,” he says.
So, the city gives away trees to residents willing to plant them. They also have an installation they call the “pop-up forest.”
“They put a forest in the mall!” exclaims Clover Tamayo-Staub, a musician and bookseller who lives in the neighborhood and loves to garden. They found out about the event through social media. It took place on Earth Day, in front of JC Penny.
“It was such the most unusual situation, to come out of a clothing store, walk into the mall, and then you smell the trees, you smell the pines, you smell the mulch," Tamayo-Staub says. “And I was like, are there actually birds in here? I know they get in the mall… But it was a recording, apparently.”
Tamayo-Staub took home a nootka rose and was inspired enough to sign up for training as an official community tree steward. The job is mostly communicating with other residents about trees.
Tamayo-Staub says it can be hard to convince people to commit to caring for something that doesn’t deliver immediate results. Other times it’s helping them decide if they want to deal with the sudden abundance that some fruit trees produce.
“Do they want to have a tree that they need to glean? What gleaning programs are there to help glean your pear tree that you had an explosion with? And how can you find people to help you with this tree, that's just giving back so much?“
Others hesitate because of the bureaucratic hurdles to planting in the city’s right of way outside their homes.
But Wyse from the Tacoma Tree Foundation says the more they convince, the more the momentum grows – as people see their neighbors planting, and get curious.
“And certain blocks that get two or three trees one year, might have four or five new trees the next year. Because people find out that it's not that hard and that you can actually get a free tree for your property,” he says.
“So I think there will be a ripple effect just because of the amount of energy we're putting into this neighborhood.”
They’ll be stepping up outreach efforts over the next three months, using email, social media, postcards and even door knocking. Then 300 trees should be planted here during the rainy season, starting in October.