Community Togetherness: Planting an Urban Forest

A group of new ‘arborists’ make sure the tree they just planted on Williams Street in Providence is standing straight. (PNPP).

A group of new ‘arborists’ make sure the tree they just planted on Williams Street in Providence is standing straight. (PNPP).

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — It sure seemed like a good way to spend a mid-October Saturday morning.

I just had to show up at Carolyn Brassil Park at the corner of Brook and Arnold at 9:30 a.m., ready to learn how to plant a street tree.

And from there, as Jorge Schumacher, who went off from the park to plant trees on Williams and John streets, put it, “It was gratifying. When Marjorie told us last year about the initiative, my wife and I were delighted to help improve the neighborhood.”

The beauty of the undertaking was that by the time we had learned some tree-planting basics, everything else would have been taken care of. The e-mails that had zipped back and forth between Marjorie Powning, the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program (PNPP) Fox Point community liaison, and our neighbor Kurt prepped us for the work.

We had learned that the dead trees next door wouldn’t be replaced, but that three trees across the street would. We learned that Kurt wouldn’t be there, and neither would Laura or Liz, but … well, probably some others would show up. Right?

As it turned out, right! And, as it turned out, all went just as planned.

The three sidewalk tree plots were widened by the city and the soil was replaced. On Friday afternoon, Kurt and Holly dug the 2-foot deep, 1-foot wide holes. On Saturday morning, a sapling was dropped off by each hole — 21 in our neighborhood. A little later, piles of mulch were unloaded.

Then about 25 of us showed up at Carolyn Brassil Park, ready to learn.

Half an hour later, primed for planting, groups of four or five newly minted arborists headed off, ready to dig and measure and water, then to mulch and marvel at their work.

Powning, an environmental activist who has been coordinating the Fox Point effort since 1990, is a true believer.

“The main goal is to help create a better urban tree canopy,” she said. “We have so much pavement, which makes a problem with runoff, and the spaces around the trees provide a more porous surface. To say nothing of how much cooler it makes things.

“My goal isn’t to improve my street, but the larger neighborhood. I want to add to the urban forest.”

Lofty goals
Powning’s goals are very much in keeping the goals of the PNPP, which is a collaboration between the Mary Elizabeth Sharpe Providence Neighborhood Planting Program Fund, the Providence Parks Department, and local residents.

The program is named in honor of Mary Elizabeth Sharpe, whom the Rhode Island Foundation refers to as a “self-taught landscape architect.” Sharpe had been involved in efforts to deal with Providence’s tree canopy since Dutch elm disease took out half the city’s elm trees in the 1950s. The first PNPP trees were planted in 1988, three years after Sharpe’s death at the age of 100. The effort was part of the Fund’s commitment to use interest from the endowment to “sustain and enhance street trees in Providence.”

Of its vision, the PNPP website says, “In 1907, Providence, Rhode Island, was the site of about 50,000 street trees. Seventy-three years later, a street tree inventory recorded a population of 22,320 trees. In an urban environment, street trees must be replanted to compensate for loss from age, disease and structural defects or the population declines. Replanting takes a dedicated and experienced staff, money for trees and equipment.”

Cassie Tharinger, PNPP director, called the program, which recently became an independent, tax-exempt nonprofit, “the life blood of the urban forest for the last 30 years.” The program supports the city’s efforts to maintain and expand Providence’s urban forest, splitting the expenses of that work 50-50 with the city.

Tharinger cited a variety of reasons for continuing — and expanding — these efforts, including better managing stormwater runoff and moderating the temperature. She also noted improved health impacts, such as the fact that “maps of asthma rates and the like with maps of street trees dovetail pretty closely. If you map income levels, you see how things line up visually. Our focus is to have trees everywhere in the city.”

City forester Doug Still shows tree-planting volunteers how to measure the depth of the hole. (PNPP)

City forester Doug Still shows tree-planting volunteers how to measure the depth of the hole. (PNPP)

To that end, PNPP, which city forester Doug Still said plants about 500 trees a year in 25 neighborhoods — another 200 or so are planted by the city — has used Community Development Block Grants to expand the program’s reach. This allows PNPP to spread the trees into neighborhoods that “need it most,” providing watering and other care for trees in transient and other areas where it’s hard to get people to commit to care for the trees before they have even established themselves.

Still noted the larger impact that these twice-a-year enterprises can have. “We get people to volunteer who say they’ve never met their neighbors,” he said.

Powning elaborated, saying, “Bringing these groups together is good because they get to know each other, which helps create a sense of community.”

Schuhmacher agreed. “Working with neighbors and seeing the interest and care for each new tree we planted” was an important part of the activity, he said.

As it was for Anne Galbraith, who planted trees on Brook Street.

“We worked in three- or four-man groups,” she said, “and the work wasn’t difficult. ... It was an easy and fun way to get to know different people in the neighborhood.”

And as it was for me, who got to know my neighbors Holly and Ronnie as we helped John and Amy put several trees in the ground on Williams Street, three of the 80 trees that were planted around the city that day. We trimmed the root balls to expose the “flare,” so the trees wouldn’t suffocate themselves.

Citizen foresters
Rewarding as our efforts were, there’s more PNPP than meets the eye. Its Providence Citizen Foresters program, for example, which was launched last fall with funding from the Helen Raleigh Walker Tree Care Trust Fund of the Rhode Island Foundation, trains veteran PNPP stewards and others in basic maintenance and pruning.

So far, about 40 people have been trained to work on street and park trees, said Tharinger, stressing the importance for tree health of pruning and ongoing maintenance.

“We have tree leaders from all over the city,” she said, “who’ve been dedicated to this work for years. It allows us to leverage and ripple our impact outward, with PNPP as the hub.”

And then there’s plans to find out the actual impact of all this work.

“I know for certain we had about 22,000 trees in 1988,” Still said, “and in 2006 we had 24,999. We’re hoping that the inventory that we’ll do at the end of the summer will show we have an increase. ... We have 25 percent coverage through fly-over imagery. We’re hoping it’s bigger.”

Tharinger noted that PNPP is considering other ways to enhance the work.

“Schools are a no-brainer,” she said. “The Nature Conservancy has a new model for urban metro regions. And we’re talking to the Providence Office of Sustainability and Groundwork Rhode Island.”

Sarah Sharpe, daughter of Mary Elizabeth and one of four advisors to the endowment, is pleased with the organization’s ongoing commitment to replenishing and expanding the urban forest. She said the annual budget in recent years has been around $100,000, and that the project has spent just under a million dollars since it began. She also acknowledges that the PNPP is carefully considering strategic steps toward expanding the program.

“Every year,” she said, “there are storms and other reasons we lose some trees. We want to continue with this successful effort. Any other changes we make need to be made very thoughtfully.”

So, thanks to PNPP’s efforts, there we were, the five of us a bit grimy and damp, wrapping up our work on the three trees we had just planted along the south side of Williams Street. The mist had begun to turn to rain as we filled the holes and tamped the earth, but not so hard as to pack it down.

The rain finally began in earnest, but we took a few minutes to stand back, surveying our handiwork. Imagining the future.