“Cleveland is the inaugurator of many admirable civic movements. One of the most important of these, and the one which has been most widely copied, perhaps, is the work of the Home Gardening Association. This movement, which has for its aim the clearing of streets and alleyways of ugly and unwholesome rubbish, and planting shrubs and plants in otherwise unsightly places, brightening and beautifying the yards surrounding residences, especially in the crowded districts...was started seven years ago by E.W. Haines and other public spirited citizens.” —The Plain Dealer, 1907
Clevelanders have long considered themselves Forest City dwellers, an inheritance from civic-minded ancestors who planted trees and gardens to keep their neighborhoods tidy, healthy, and feeling closer to nature. Countless parks, hospitals, homes and businesses incorporated Forest City in their name.
Whether early Clevelanders were repairing damage or aspiring to finer living like the landed gentry in the old country, they planted an image of Cleveland as a green city.
But, two centuries later, how much forest is left in the city, and, by extension, Cuyahoga County?
That question drove the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission (CCPC) to explore, in exacting detail, the urban tree canopy over 59 cities in Northeast Ohio.
“It’s a way to jump start urban forestry efforts,” says CCPC manager of information and research, Dan Meaney, who wrote the report. “It can be a reality check, generally. In its simplest way, a suburb might look at the stats for a neighboring community and form a goal to have as good a tree canopy as their rival.”
The Cuyahoga County Urban Tree Canopy Assessment offers a broadbrush view of how leafy a community or river corridor that flows through it is. Or, how land-use decisions like wider roads and bigger commercial centers lead to larger expanses of paved surface which are not shaded by trees. With its online map, one can zoom in or out to compare streets or search for themes like vacant land.
“For example, we’re helping someone find a 3-acre plot of grassland that is public where they want to do a science experiment,” Meaney said.
Important discoveries include:
- 44.8% or nearly 100,000 acres of Cuyahoga is covered by grass or “Possible Tree Canopy Vegetation.”
- Trees cover 37.6% of Cuyahoga County, but their distribution is very uneven. Cleveland has only 18.9% tree cover. By comparison, Detroit has 23% and Pittsburgh has 42% tree cover, helped by a hilly topography, but also volunteers planting tens of thousands of new trees in the last decade.
- Not surprisingly, the canopy in Gates Mills and the tony far eastern suburbs of Cuyahoga County exceeds 70 percent.
- Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, South Euclid, Bratenahl and Fairview Park have the highest level of canopy among the inner-ring suburbs, with more than 40% of land covered by leafy trees.
- Less than half of the outer suburbs in Cuyahoga County have a similarly copious tree canopy.
“But, there are a lot of nuances within the community,” Meaney said. “So, Strongsville, where I live, they have 15 to 20% of land in the Metroparks and 4% in Innerstate right of way, so those are areas where work can’t be done. As extreme an example as that is, communities have to be careful of comparisons.”
Forestry groups generally set 40% as a baseline for a healthy tree canopy in urban areas, he said. For the 27 suburbs in Cuyahoga County that fall below this benchmark, the report offers specific guidance about where they can get more green. It can also give them a leg up on funding for trees from public sources like the Ohio Division of Forestry, he added.
Cuyahoga County joins 820 communities across the U.S. in completing tree canopy assessments using high-resolution LIDAR technology. Baltimore, Maryland made an important discovery with theirs, estimating that if every opportunity for a street tree’s canopy to grow in the right of way were realized, and if all parks reached 100% tree canopy, the city still would achieve only 10% of its total 40% canopy goal.
"The remaining 30% of the tree canopy goal would have to be established on other lands in the City," a report from Loyola Marymount found. "An 'All Lands, All People' approach that includes public, private, community, and abandoned lands is needed."
The county and the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan (RAP), a non-profit group that secured the funding for the study, hosted a workshop last week, attended by 70 local communities and watershed groups, to explain the results. The Cuyahoga RAP has started a tree planting campaign called Cuyahoga ReLeaf, whose primary focus is to plant trees around streams and rivers. Trees help stabilize river banks and help keep water clean.
Cities interested in greening themselves could start considering what are their priorities for an urban tree canopy, Meaney said. New York City’s tree canopy prioritization, for example, worked with stakeholders like conservation and social service groups to develop priorities before the Big Apple launched its MillionTreesNYC campaign.
Tree canopies reduce water pollution, filter toxins from the air, and lower what is called "urban heat islands" or areas with high concentrations of pavement. In this respect, the report has the potential to improve a city’s green performance measures.