During a recent trip to Tijuana, Mexico landscape designer, Armando Ramos, who is fighting for the creation of a central park within the borders of his city of 1.7 million inhabitants, made a connection between nature and math.
The World Health Organization has calculated that we all need to breath 360 liters of oxygen a day, he said, adding that it will take 10 trees per person to produce that much oxygen. Tijuana is in an ecosystem by the ocean which produces 70% of their oxygen. But, the city doesn’t have enough parks—only 3 square feet per person—to provide space for trees to make up the clean air gap.
What is the park space per person in Cleveland? Cleveland’s Parks Department lists 150 parks which cover 1,498 acres (or 43,560 square feet) in the city, not counting its golf courses. With 396,815 residents, Cleveland has 9.1 square feet of parks per person.
How does Cleveland compare to other cities in its parks space per person?
Tim DeChant runs the numbers on his web site, Per Square Mile, and the results may surprise some. Albuquerque tops the list with 2,933 square feet of park space per person, followed by Raleigh, Phoenix, Lincoln and Portland with 1,040.
De Chant ranks Columbus 9th out of 25 cities with 633 sq. ft. of parks per person. Columbus incorporates its suburbs which makes its land mass 217 sq. mi. or nearly three times as large as that of Cleveland at 77 sq. mi. With its expanded border, the Columbus-area population is 809,798; in other words, a straight apples-to-apples comparison is complicated.
Comparisons may be less important as emerging opportunities for Cleveland and its suburbs to expand their parks and green space. Because of the subprime lending fiasco starting in 2007, Cleveland’s annual foreclosure rate just recently dropped out of double digit territory. In that timeframe, the city has demolished 1,000 homes per year with plans to demolish 20,000 more, Thriving Communities Institute director Jim Rokakis says. Rokakis told GCBL that 8,300 is a conservative estimate of Cleveland’s vacant properties. His organization has wrangled $15 million for demolition and a grant from St. Luke’s Foundation for $250,000 to “re-green” properties on the east side which includes a big tree planting operation.
Cleveland also has an Urban Forestry Division and an arborist whose mission is “to provide a safe urban forest while striving to preserve its natural beauty...including the maintenance of all public street and park trees.” They may have a better estimate of how many trees are within the city borders and if it adds up to 10 per person, but if you start at an arbitrary date, say the first EarthDay in 1970, then the city has planted an estimated 22,000 trees.
Questions about how many trees perish annually, and what are the best trees to plant in Cleveland to provide its citizens with clean air, shade and beauty naturally follow.
Ohio State University’s “Street Tree Evaluation Project: Forty Years of Street Tree Evaluation in Five Communities” is a longitudinal study that looked at the health and quality of street trees in major cities of Ohio including Greater Cleveland from 1971 to 2007. Starting in 1967, Dr. Kenneth Reisch reported on 53 selected species and cultivars planted in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Each site consisted of five trees with data on tree height, trunk caliper, and branch spread.
“This 43-year-old document, with its accompanying photographs produced by Dr. Reisch and Project Chairperson Richard Abbott, is a treasure of information for city foresters, nursery managers, landscape architects, city planners, tree commissions, and community administrators,” OSU Extension offers. “This document not only evaluates the growth of trees planted in rights-of-way, but it also identifies the locations for future observations.”
Reisch in 1971, and in follow up visits in 1997 and 2007, found that trident maples had grown from 18 to 30 feet tall on the treelawns of Edgecliff, a residential street in Lakewood near Warren and Triskett. Norway maples planted on Elsmere Drive in Parma, however, were wiped out by the city. “Would you believe that the entire subdivision is gone?” Reisch wrote in 1997. “It was removed to provide a noise buffer for Cleveland Hopkins Airport."
Cleveland’s treelawn trees that are in better shape appear to be fast-growing but shorter lived maples and honeylocust. Norway maples planted in 1953 on Shawnee Road in Lyndhurst grew from 20 to 44 feet, but their condition in 2007 rated them only a 35% chance of survival (down from 59% in 1997).
Non-native species planted in the 1950s like the white birch on E. 290th Street in Wickliffe and Paul’s Scarlet English Hawthorn on Henritze have disappeared. The Sugar Hackberry on E. 114th Street are sickly, few Japanese Katsura planted on Brookside Drive have survived, and same goes for the Lavalle Hawthorn on Orchard Grove in Old Brooklyn. Only a few of the Sycamore maples on East 187th Street and on Governor Avenue, a nice brick-lined street on the west side of Cleveland, have survived the test of time.
Despite the rougher urban conditions, the Crimson King Norway Maples on Eastlawn in Richmond Heights still have a relatively high (59%) chance of survival despite “severe utility pruning and are in poor condition.” Same for the Hardy Rubbertrees of Liberty Avenue. The Faasens Black Norway Maples on Arlis near the Triskett Rapid Station have grown from 15 feet in 1967 to 35 feet in 2007 where their survival rating of 63% bodes well for the street which has visibly improved. Miraculously, 73% of W. 182nd Street’s velvet ash from 1953 are hanging on despite the emerald ash borer epidemic.
Survival rates of Greater Cleveland’s street trees vary—in a few cases, the treelawns were too small. Many trees perished in a short time frame of 40 years, and so over the course of the city’s next 200 years, the current stock of trees in Cleveland and its suburbs will certainly have to be replaced.
On the bright side, images of then and now show a nice tree canopy can grow quickly over suburban and urban streets. The study shows that planting a lot of fast growing trees like maples can, in the span of one generation, change the character of a street or whole neighborhood. Some of the transformations, like Arlis in Cleveland, Lake in Toledo, and College in Wooster, are stunning.
But, there is definite attrition of treelawn trees in Greater Cleveland. It points to the need for city and suburb to pay closer attention to their current stock of trees—to improve their chances of survival—and to have an active program of planting trees to anticipate losses. As the photos of the before and after shows, treelawn trees can be a worthwhile investment in the curb appeal and ecology of urban and suburban places.
Giving a boost to local air quality, the city of Cleveland in March announced plans to plant 1,000 trees in five of its neighborhoods beginning this fall, as part of a larger, long-term goal to replenish the urban forest. Funded by a $250,000 grant from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the city will divide the effort over the next two years, doubling the city’s usual yearly planting of 500 trees on tree lawns.
Looking ahead at the opportunities for replanting vacant property, Cleveland was a major partner in ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland, a planning effort that caught the world’s attention for its early and creative reaction to the city’s foreclosure crisis. It still has resonance as a framework to turn vacant land into green space.
Most of the attention from the ReImagine study ended up going toward urban agriculture; and it paid off in the last five years. Cleveland has spurred the creation of at least half a dozen urban ag operations of one-acre or larger. Some were the good work of non-profit groups like the Cuyahoga County Department of Developmental Disabilities. Others are start ups with non-profit support like the Evergreen Cooperative’s greenhouse, the OSU Agriculture Extension’s urban farm and a local franchise of the national urban farming organization, Growing Power, on the east side of Cleveland. Still others are making a go as for-profit urban farmers and market gardeners —their ranks are growing.
While ReImagine helped frame the idea that Cleveland could re-introduce nature back to neighborhoods and even suggested how the city might stitch together parcels of vacant land, the process for doing so seems to be the next step that the city needs. A large-scale urban re-greening effort could be part of the city’s sustainability plan. Perhaps the reforestation combined with a renewed focus on fruit trees is an equitable and green path forward for Cleveland?
Groups like Western Reserve Land Conservancy and the Cleveland Botanical Garden are also working on how Cleveland can introduce urban ecologies, and are looking to alter conceptual and legal frameworks for older, built out cities that are looking for a path to reinvention.
Cities that covered over nature when they boomed might find that uncovering nature will restore the natural capital that brings them through the bust. There are some wonderful examples from which Cleveland can learn—like Youngstown’s focus on repurposing vacant land in its Idora neighborhood to Pittsburgh’s G-Tech which plants fields of sunflowers as a beautification and biomass labs that make you forget about blight and vacancy.