Cleveland is losing trees; health and environmental advocates call for planting

Government officials, nonprofit representatives, and environmental leaders gathered at the Cuyahoga Tree Symposium to discuss the status and stakes of the region’s tree canopy coverage.
East 177th Street in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood of Cleveland. The city of Cleveland and its first-ring suburbs have lost trees at an alarming clip, say leaders. (Photo by Karin McKenna)

For the past four years, the city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have each allocated $1 million per year for tree planting to bring back the region’s dwindling tree canopy. Through its Cuyahoga County Healthy Urban Tree Canopy grants, Cuyahoga County funded the planting of 4,000 trees in 25 locations across the county in 2021. Yet while those numbers may sound impressive, officials at the recent Cuyahoga Tree Symposium held Friday, September 23 at Beachwood Community Center pointed out that the region is still losing trees at an alarming clip. 

“We’ve seen a significant decrease in canopy coverage,” Cuyahoga County Sustainability Director Mike Foley said. “Some (areas) are doing well, but others, like first-ring suburbs and the city of Cleveland, are struggling.”

The City of Cleveland alone has lost half of its tree canopy since 1950, according to the Cleveland Tree Plan. The decline has left only 18% of the city covered in shade, and the losses continue to mount: According to the Cleveland Tree Coalition (CTC), at the current rate, Cleveland will lose another 4% of its trees by 2040. 

To truly reforest the Forest City, advocates say the city and the county must find ways to convince others, such as private property owners, to help with reforestation efforts. The CTC estimates it needs to plant 28,400 trees per year to get back to 30% tree canopy. By comparison, Pittsburgh has a much larger tree canopy coverage of 42%. 

Meanwhile, Cuyahoga County averages a 34% tree canopy; it needs to add 7% or tens of thousands more trees to bring it up to a national standard of 35-40% coverage, said Foley. 

Trees matter, Foley adds, for a number of reasons, including their abilities to absorb rain, support insect communities (which in turn support bird populations), and produce shade, all of which will be needed in the future as the climate moves to “warmer, wetter, and wilder weather.” 

A team effort

The combined county and city budget of $2 million isn’t the only source of funding for trees. Since 2015, the nonprofit Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC) has distributed 15,000 trees and seedlings in Greater Cleveland through its Tree Steward program, which trains individuals to become tree planters. Lizzie Sords, Manager of Urban Forestry at WRLC, said to focus on equity means concentrating their tree planting in priority neighborhoods where trees are missing entirely.

“To have impact on the canopy, we can’t do that if it’s a few drops in the bucket all over the place,” she said, adding that vacant lots, parks, and recreation centers like Zone Recreation Center on the near west side provide ample opportunity to plant multiple trees.

The conservancy’s volunteer “tree stewards” are also working in the suburbs. Laura Marks is cofounder of the group Heights Tree People, which has planted 800 trees in Cleveland Heights and University Heights, two suburbs which are experiencing losses in their tree canopy because many of their trees are reaching the end of their lifespan. The Ward 15 Tree Canopy Steering Committee in the Edgewater, Cudell, and Detroit Shoreway neighborhoods, along with Tremont Gardeners, another volunteer group of WRLC tree stewards, were also mentioned as models.

“We have neighborhood tree groups who together are growing the canopy,” observed Cathi Lehn, manager of Sustainable Cleveland. “We can’t just depend on our cities – we will not have enough trees to get to (30%). We do need residents and commercial property owners to plant trees. With these groups, you see a passion for planting trees.”

The Cuyahoga Tree Symposium took place on September 23 at the Beachwood Community Center. (Photo courtesy of the Cuyahoga Tree Symposium)

Why trees matter

More and more people are recognizing the tangible benefits trees produce, like purifying air, lowering the risk of heat stroke for residents in homes without air conditioning, and protecting communities from flooding by absorbing rain, the CTC says. The organization estimates that trees in the city of Cleveland produce $11.4 million in “quantifiable services” per year.

“In facing challenges of climate change and increased urbanization, we’re starting to see the need for trees,” said David Wilson, a project manager at the nonprofit LAND Studio. “Trees are critical infrastructure.”

When the county started its grant program three years ago, spending nearly $1 million a year on trees was thought to be a big deal. Still, the county program has had its critics who complained that more needs to be done to require private investment in the tree canopy. The grants, which were supported by county council as well as County Executive Armond Budish, who leaves office later this year, have helped to address environmental health concerns, Foley said. 

“We have a huge asthma problem,” he said, referencing reports that 23% of Cleveland residents, many of them youth, have been diagnosed with asthma. “Hopefully, trees can reduce ground level ozone,” he added. Ozone is an air pollutant contributing to asthma, and the EPA informed Cleveland and the Northeast Ohio region last week it was failing to keep ozone at safe levels. 

“There are plenty of reasons why the County thinks it’s a good time to be putting money into trees,” Foley added.

Addressing the symposium, Budish added that leaders have listened to those calling for restoring the tree canopy. “Anyone who tells you advocacy doesn’t work is wrong,” Budish said. “I knew they looked nice, but didn’t have an idea on the importance of trees.”

When Cleveland was the Forest City  

Well before the post-war boom that carved out the suburbs of Cuyahoga County, Cleveland began losing its claim to the moniker “Forest City.” That process began 150 years before, when European settlers arrived and laid waste to the dense forests first surveyed by Moses Cleaveland and his crew at the Connecticut Land Company. 

Based on land surveys from the 1800s, Greater Cleveland was 98% covered by forest, said ecologist and Baldwin Wallace University professor Kathryn Flinn. The canopy then consisted of a variety of species of trees that can still be seen in abundance on tree lawns on the west side, including pin oaks and giant white oaks, or clinging to hillsides east of the river, mostly notably beech, maple, and chestnut oak trees.

“Today the county is 77% development, including lawns,” said Flinn, who has produced maps of the area’s original forests and compared it to what exists today. “We have all of the original tree (types) that were abundant here, and none (of the types added over time) are problematic. We know what is native and where we can plant them.” 

The symposium continued a simmering debate about whether restoring the canopy to what was native 200 years ago is the best path forward or whether the plans – and thus the region – must adapt to climate change. Though growth “zones” or climates move at a slow clip, Cleveland was recently designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as being in a more temperate zone (6). Tree experts like the CTC, while considering planting for the future, are aware that native trees like maples may be vulnerable to higher temperatures. 

“Oaks are temperate trees,” said Roy Larick, who leads Bluestone Heights, a watershed group, indicating that certain oak tree species can manage climate change. “Magnolias and tulip (poplar) trees could fill in the gap for beech-maple dominated forests which are having problems.”

More than land needs repair

Underlying climate concerns is how the city and county will equitably distribute resources to bring back the region’s tree canopy. Systemic racism such as redlining and discriminatory lending of banks in the post-war era also led to disinvestment in the urban tree canopy. 

This was addressed in a video by Cleveland Tree Coalition Executive Director Samira Malone and also by a panel discussion at the end of the day. “The (Cleveland Tree Plan) intentionally addresses structural inequities like redlining,” Malone said about the visible contrast in tree coverage (as seen in satellite images) between city and suburbs. “I grew up in Cleveland and have seen the importance of having a healthy tree canopy.”

Cleveland is not alone in this concern; when household income and social vulnerabilities are layered onto where trees are in Pittsburgh, they are located in higher income areas, disproportionately improving largely white areas of town.

“Communities of color have borne the brunt of decisions (about where to invest in the tree canopy),” said Whitnye Long Jones, director of the nonprofit group Organic Connects. “We are seeing the impact on the environment and in our communities.”

Meanwhile, some doctors at the Cleveland Clinic have actually prescribed time in nature for their patients, added Jon Utech, the Clinic’s Director of the Office for a Healthy Environment

“People seem to really enjoy trees,” said Kelly Coble, a philosophy professor at Baldwin Wallace. “They link us to the larger ecological context with birdsong and crickets and frogs.”

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