Think a 400 year old oak tree can be a superhero? When you’re not looking they are cleaning the air, re-routing storm water,…and breaking wind so you won’t be blown away! And if a patient can view trees outside their window, they can recover faster and require less painkillers during their stay in the hospital, according to Scientific American. That’s right – trees are the gentle giants protecting our spaces and quality of life.
No wonder Tree Vitalize has become so popular in Pittsburgh’s ground-level revitalization. As a tree-planting partnership through Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) with Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh, Tree Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, it is a local sustainability effort to increase the number of trees in and around Pittsburgh.
Lead by Jeffrey Bergman, Director of Community Forestry, and Lauren Fike, Community Forestry Project Coordinator, the organization is responsible for nearly 30,000 trees being planted since 2006, and this is only the beginning.
Bergman said that the quality of life in any urban environment can be improved through mindful conservation practices in and around a city.
“The trees in urban settings serve a specific purpose. A street tree that is shading a street and shading businesses provide benefits that are different than trees in parks and wooded settings.”
For urban landscapes, the benefits of trees are numerous. They can reduce storm runoff and land erosion, decrease energy bills, increase property values, and improve air quality. In the city’s Tree Management Plan, Pittsburgh’s trees were appraised at over $51 million and contributed to nearly $100,000 in energy savings. Despite the advantages, man-made challenges have impeded tree canopies from flourishing.
Rapid construction of roads, housing, and natural gas pipelines contributed to the decline of tree canopies in the county. In a recent study done by Tree Pittsburgh, a little over 10,000 acres was destroyed between 2010 and 2015.
Bergman and Fike’s primary concern is to engage residents and citizens in the work of planting more trees. TreeVitalize provides targeted outreach projects for areas with low tree canopy and in low income communities. The program consistently draws in those who appreciate trees, said Bergman, but planting the tree is only the start. There’s also the long-term maintenance.
“It’s essential there is strong maintenance because we are putting living things in a harsh environment,” Bergman said. “Remember that while trees are infrastructure they are living and they are something that need to be taken care of and respected.”
These projects are critical in not only increasing the number of trees in Pittsburgh, but also connecting people to their community in more significant ways. Fike said that much of her work in managing the field projects and logistics helps prepare volunteers to value the tree-planting experience in meaningful ways.
“It’s really rewarding because if they take the time to plant the tree in 30 degree weather and it’s raining, they are dedicated to that tree. They can say, ‘Oh I planted that tree. I wonder how my tree is doing,’” she said.
Bergman credits the great volunteer ethic in the city of Pittsburgh for TreeVitalize’s success. Residents are able to see physical changes to their community with just a few hours of service. Volunteers hand trees averaging between 10 and 15 feet tall, and the service project stands as a rewarding experience for those who plant these woody giants.
“People seem to derive a sense of satisfaction from tree planting,” he said. “We also work with colleges and universities but we get feedback that compared to picking up litter on the roadside, people feel like they’ve done something more to help the environment when they do a tree planting.”
Trees are pruned and planted in the early spring and fall while trees are dormant and bear no leaves because they are not able to photosynthesize. TreeVitalize, in partnership with Tree Pittsburgh, offers training for those interested in becoming a “tree tender.”
“You see trees in a different way when you learn about them,” Bergman said. “It’s not just a stop sign or a fire hydrant. People lose sense that these are living things in our environment and you can learn why this work is important.”
Pittsburghers can join the cause to plant more trees and make the city greener by going through TreeVitalize’s intensive training process and coordinating a tree planting project for their neighborhood. Fall 2018 applications are now available and due by March 16. Those interested are also encouraged to contact Bergman directly at 412-586-2396 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the spirit of recognizing all we are already doing in Pittsburgh, we have started a new blog series to compliment We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, the exhibition about the complex relationship between humans and nature currently on display at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. We are featuring Pittsburghers who are committed to improving the environment in which we live. Each blog features a new individual and shares some of the ways in which they are helping issues of sustainability, conservation, restoration, climate change, or helping Pittsburgh to be an even more beautiful place to live.