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In Tacoma, growing the urban tree canopy is a community effort

A line of six people dressed to work outside pass bags of dirt in a parking lot with a truck and trees in buckets behind.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
Volunteers load bags of topsoil mix across the McKinley VFW Hall parking lot into trucks for tree planting tours on Veterans Day, part of the 2022 annual Branch Out event.

On Veteran’s Day, Sandy Hanks stood in the parking lot of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in the McKinley neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington, admiring a southern Magnolia tree.

“This past summer, the blinds in the front melted,” Hanks said. “So we've been looking for a good shade tree.”

McKinley, where Hanks lives, is one of the Tacoma neighborhoods that register between ten and 15 degrees hotter in summer than places with better tree cover. The heat dome of 2021 brought the highest temperatures ever seen in the Pacific Northwest in late June, killing more than 100 people statewide. Others sweltered in the heat, like Hanks, on her street in McKinley.

“It gets that kind of exposure. It's too hot. It's like, direct sunlight. And for years, we've been saying, why don't we just plant something right in the strip by the right of way, to shade the house,” Hanks said.

So she came to this event in McKinley, called Branch Out, where the Tacoma Tree Foundation partnered with the City of Tacoma, the VFW and the Pierce Conservation District, to distribute and plant 500 trees over the three-day weekend.

“The southern magnolia is perfect,” she said with a big smile.

A person in a red coat smiles while pushing an orange dolly with a tree and posts loaded into it, another person in a blue coat looks on.
Lowell Wyse
/
Tacoma Tree Foundation
McKinley residents Sarah Brady, left, and Lakecia Farmer took home a southern Magnolia to shade their home and celebrate the expected arrival of their new baby in a few months. Creating family traditions that celebrate trees is one way to get more people planting them, they said.

Tacoma is one of dozens of cities nationwide that are working hard to get more trees into the ground and maintain them, as a way to fight climate change. A new study from the conservation non-profit American Forests found that 31.4 million new plantings are needed every year in U.S. cities, to reach equity and climate goals.

Communities from Phoenix, Arizona to San Diego, California, from Las Vegas, Nevada to Chicago, Illinois are setting ambitious canopy goals and doubling down as they strive to meet them.

Tacoma serves as a good example of how cities can build momentum with residents like Hanks, to increase the canopy cover. She said the neighbors on both sides of her house took part in a similar tree-planting event a couple of years ago and that planted the idea for her to look for shade trees.

“We keep looking at their trees. I'm like, we're envious,” Hanks said.

She said there are still some other neighbors to convince. But she has a vision of transforming her overheated block with its vintage houses into a beautiful and cool, tree-lined street. That’s a vision the city hopes will take root, and continue to spread.

Tacoma needs more trees

Tacoma has fewer trees than any other city that has measured its canopy in the Puget Sound region. It currently covers about 20% of the land mass. In places, the canopy registers only about 10%.

A man points to a wooden map held up by another man that shows the city of Tacoma color-coded from dark red to blue indicating temperature differences.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
Lowell Wyse, executive director of Tacoma Tree Foundation, held up a wooden heat map showing temperature differences in city's neighborhoods, while Tacoma City Council Member Joe Bushnell spoke about the importance of equity and the healing power of trees.

The city identified several priority neighborhoods, including McKinley, where the history of redlining has left residents especially exposed. The lack of investments by racist banks correlates with a lack of tree-cover.

So 12 years ago, Tacoma set one of the region’s most aggressive goals for growing the urban canopy: to get to 30 percent coverage by 2030 – and to do so equitably.

Advocates say they can only reach those goals by engaging the community. The Veteran’s Day Branch Out event was the latest iteration of those efforts.

A slow start towards an ambitious goal

“My philosophy for climate change is, you know, if you can only do one thing to fight climate change, plant a tree,” said Jim Parvey, Tacoma’s chief sustainability officer and head of environmental policy.

He noted that trees help mitigate the urban heat island effect, they absorb air pollution, sequester carbon and help prevent stormwater runoff. But Tacoma set the ambitious goal for its canopy more than a decade ago. And they have hardly moved the dial to date, inching up only about 1% in 12 years.

“We're not where we need to be yet,” Parvey said. “I don't believe that we'll be able to make our 30% goal by 2030. But we're ramping up the process.”

Parvey said it might realistically take till 2035 or 2040. Part of the problem is that the city has lost more trees than they have been able to replace and add to with new plantings. But he is hopeful that momentum is growing.

Tacoma is working on policies to make it easier for developers and residents to keep trees, rather than remove them. More people like Hanks and her neighbors are seeing the value of trees and spreading the word. And events like the tree giveaway are helping people learn how to plant the right kinds of trees in the best locations and in a way the transplants will thrive.

Right tree, right place, right way

“We don't want to plant a tree and then have to take it out,” said Courtney Johnson, planting coordinator with Tacoma Tree Foundation, as she stood in Cynthia Ramos' yard.

Ramos, a resident of the Tacoma Mall neighborhood, stood nearby, ready to receive three large oak trees as part of the Branch Out tree giveaway. It was one of four planting stops on Johnson’s schedule that day.

“I can help – but I don’t have any tools,” Ramos said, visibly excited to get this special delivery.

“That’s okay. We have tools,” said Johnson, handing the homeowner a shovel as she and a volunteer unloaded the trees from the back of their truck and surveyed the property for the best planting locations.

The yard was large, but before she started digging, Johnson took care to find the best location for each tree, staying clear of water lines and the foundation of the house.   

“Oftentimes, that's why people don't want trees. It’s because they were poorly planted or they were put in the wrong spot,” Johnson said.

“And then later on, it causes a problem and someone has to pay to trim it or remove it. And nobody wants that.”

Two women dig a whole with shovels, another person is bent down in the background. Behind them is a brown fence and a street with homes and trees.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
Courtney Johnson with the Tacoma Tree Foundation gets the help of homeowner Cynthia Ramos as they plant a large pin oak in her front yard in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood.

Another issue is planting technique. When it isn’t done correctly, trees won’t grow.

Ramos said she and her husband bought and planted a small cherry in the corner of their yard, but it hasn’t done well.

“That one. I planted it like three years ago, but I think I didn't move the bottom the right way. So it stays small, like a bonsai!” she said with a laugh.

It hasn’t grown. Johnson told her it’s probably root bound – caused in part by a common mistake many people make.

Dig wide, not too deep and set the roots free

“I think sometimes when people think of digging a hole for a tree, they like to dig deep,” Johnson said.  “But oftentimes you want to dig wide… almost like the bottom of a wine glass.”

Ramos said in retrospect, she probably planted her cherry tree too deep.

Johnson also taught her how to unfurl the tree’s roots – shaking all the dirt from the outside of the root ball and then scrubbing the surface and pruning large root branches, to make sure they can spread out and grow in one direction after planting. The trimming isn’t harmful, Johnson said, it even stimulates growth.

Two people wearing gloves shake dirt off and unfurl the roots at the base of a young tree.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
An important part of tree planting is unfurling the root ball and pruning large root branches to ensure they can spread effectively.

Planting in the fall and winter is ideal, because the trees are dormant. Any shock to their system is minimized.

Johnson said larger trees like the three oaks delivered and planted here for Ramos retail for between $100 and $400 apiece.

Before packing up to go to the next house on her planting tour, Johnson admired the newly-planted pin oak in the front yard, which she said is one of the largest trees they’re giving away. It already stands nearly eight feet tall.

It's absolutely gorgeous – beautiful fall color. It turns this beautiful, vibrant red and yellow. So it will get big, which is nice. And this is a really good spot for it,” Johnson said.

The new owner’s only obligation is a promise to water them. Ramos said her family could not afford to buy these trees on their own.

“With everything being so expensive, it’s the last thing you're going to do right now is spend money on trees – food is so expensive,” she said.   

But they’re grateful to receive them – to help cool their home and beautify the property.

By the end of the weekend, Tacoma Tree Foundation said it had distributed and planted 493 free trees, the largest tree giveaway the city has ever seen. The city of Tacoma will end the year with more than 3,878 new trees added to its canopy, more than double the total for 2016.

IMG_0475cropped.jpg
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
Courtney Johnson's crew from the Tacoma Tree Foundation planted two trees in front of this house in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood — one of the city's hottest — on Veterans Day, during the Branch Out event.

Note: Branch Out is Tacoma’s largest annual community tree share, but the City of Tacoma also has a range of options. These include a tree coupon to use towards the purchase of up to three trees at participating local nurseries. They also help residents plant free trees in the right of way, through participation in the Grit City Trees Program.

Updated: December 23, 2022 at 12:59 PM PST
Added information about other cities' tree canopy efforts.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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