In Search of Some Shade

Posted on August 4, 2023

Sunlight filters through the green, leafy branches of a tree canopy.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Chris Keefer, Owner, K2 Communications of SC, LLC, in Blythewood, SC. Connect with Chris on Facebook and LinkedIn.

What I’m Reading: Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson (this month’s book club pick).

What I’m Watching: Free Code Camp videos on YouTube (I’m finishing up a front-end web development course).

Who My Pets Are: Butkus and Buster, two “good boy” dogs we adopted over the last four years.

When I go to an outdoor public space, I can’t help but notice the trees — or lack thereof. For example, while enjoying a car show at our town’s park in May, I browsed rows of antique and customized cars. Yet, I also observed how well some of the newer planted trees were growing while some older established trees either had some thin spots or were in need of a good pruning. And since this particular South Carolina afternoon was sunny and warm, I was searching for some shade; however, the lack of trees in and around the event area made shade hard to find.

I’m probably more inclined than most people to be more tree-observant because I’ve worked with arborists for many years — and because I grew up in Pennsylvania (which literally means “Penn’s Woodland”). I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the beauty, form, and function that trees contribute to our environment. Landscape and street trees soften the hardness of buildings, streets, and sidewalks. And as a municipal arborist colleague tells me, shade from landscape and street trees extends the functional life of hardscape like asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks. Depending on the time of year, trees may add varying shades of green, amber, brown, and red to cityscapes. And trees have a symbiotic relationship with us carbon-generating creatures: throughout their lifespan, trees capture and convert carbon dioxide to oxygen for us to breathe, they provide raw materials to feed and shelter us, and — of course — they shade us.

On the other hand, having worked in local government, I know there are costs and risks involved in having trees in public spaces, such as maintenance and liability. Tree removal services can be costly, as can be a claim for personal injury or property damage resulting from a fallen limb or tree. I also learned from experience that planting trees of the wrong species and size, in the wrong space, and without proper guidance can be costly, too.

But there are ways for cities and towns to limit the costs and risks of having trees in outdoor public spaces while at the same time making sure those trees and spaces can be enjoyed by everyone.

Enlist the right help from credentialed and insured professional arborists and tree care companies. Trees are community assets — just as a town’s employees, vehicle fleet, and buildings are—so they should receive the same professional care and maintenance. Tree professionals often have at least one credential from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). Some cities have certified municipal arborists on staff; others may opt to train public works or parks and recreation staff to become certified arborists. A third option is to contract with a certified arborist in your area who can guide efforts in planting and maintaining trees on a schedule that works within your town’s budget and timeframe. Working with properly insured professionals protects both them and your town from possible liability.

Understand that trees are unique fixed assets. Trees may be the only municipal fixed assets that increase, rather than decrease, in value as they age. (And the bigger the tree, the more value it holds.) By contrast, most other municipal fixed assets — vehicles, equipment, furniture — depreciate in value as they age. Just as your town probably has an inventory of its personnel and physical assets, an arborist can prepare a tree inventory that documents the species, count, age, and condition of trees in your outdoor public spaces. This inventory can help you determine tree value and serve as input for a tree management program.

Plant the right tree in the right public space. It helps to know what established and/or planted trees exist in your public spaces so that you can determine if they are a good fit with that purpose. For example, fruiting trees and vegetation that attract bees and wasps would be great for a pollinator garden, but not such a great fit when landscaping a children’s playground. (I’m having flashbacks to the cherry trees that grew around my elementary school playground — and the kids running to the school nurse with bee stings.) Likewise, low-growing or bushy trees planted near busy intersections are great for screening street noise, but they might interfere with a driver’s or pedestrian’s line of sight. Keep an illustrated tree guide (like those published by the National Audubon Society, Petersen, or Sibley) for your region on hand to help you identify and understand the trees growing in your public spaces. When choosing new trees, consult a landscape designer or tree nursery staff.

Have a plan – for installing, aftercare, and ongoing maintenance. The tree inventory and a landscape plan serve as the foundation for subsequent and coordinated plans to install, care for, maintain, and even remove trees. For example, if your town plans to install new trees in a park, be aware that the new plantings will require a lot of watering (aftercare) in their first year to establish a good root system. Those roots may eventually conflict with paved or natural surfaces, requiring some landscape and hardscape maintenance. Existing trees around the new plantings may need to be trimmed or pruned to allow their new neighbors space and light to grow. Because these activities are interdependent, they should be coordinated, too. Generally speaking, a landscape professional will plan and recommend suitable tree species for the landscape, a tree nursery or landscaping service will install trees and provide the aftercare instructions or services, and an arborist will plan and provide tree care and maintenance services as trees mature.

So, take it from this tree aficionado: Knowing your trees — and proactively planning and caring for them now—will ensure that they are there for us whenever we’re searching for some shade.

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