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Philly Tree Plan Will Require Political Will, ‘Lofty’ Funding to Execute
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Philly Tree Plan Will Require Political Will, ‘Lofty’ Funding to Execute

Environmental advocates welcomed the roadmap to improve Philadelphia’s tree canopy while questioning its cost and consistency with recent clear-cutting.

The Philly Tree Plan, released last month by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, offers a detailed blueprint to reverse the declining trend in the city’s tree canopy, including the creation of a city forester position and 67 new jobs to oversee its implementation. It would improve the health and wellness of the city’s residents, protect the region’s watershed, reduce crime and combat climate change.

But it will require an average of $25 million in new funding over the next three decades to pull it off – along with a deep reservoir of political support at a time of transition in the Mayor’s Office. It also brings further attention to the city’s controversial recent decisions to cut down mature trees in FDR Park and at the Cobbs Creek Golf Course.

Parks & Recreation secured $2 million for the 2023 fiscal year, which will fund 18 new employees devoted to carrying out the tree plan, according to Erica Smith Fichman, community forestry manager at Parks & Rec and the project lead for the plan. The rest of the money – both in the short and long term – will need to be compiled from a mix of local, state, and federal funds and foundational support that have yet to be determined. 

Kiasha Huling, a trail organizer with the Clean Air Council and former executive director of UC Green, said the 128-page plan sets a strong path forward for the city’s urban canopy. Now, it’s “just a matter of implementation.”

“This is really about political will and having the resourcefulness to find the funding to make such a solid plan become reality,” Huling said.

From 2008 to 2018, Philadelphia’s forests shrunk by 6%, falling to 20% overall cover. In some neighborhoods, the tree canopy is below 5%. Among the chief goals of the 10-year plan is improving the balance of the city’s urban forest so everyone can experience the benefits of trees. Addressing equity concerns is key to the plan’s effort to go beyond simply planting and maintaining trees, Smith Fichman said.

“It recognizes the many different ways that people interact with trees in our city, both good and bad. (The Philly Tree Plan) acknowledges, promotes and recommends ways to right past wrongs, deal with some of the burdens and more equitably distribute the resources that the city and our partners have,” Smith Fichman said.

A need for support – across city agencies and the next mayor

Coordination among city agencies to support the tree canopy is integral to the plan and one of the eight primary goals it lays out.

While Parks & Rec maintains 10,000 acres of parkland and 117,000 street trees, other city agencies, including the Commerce Department and the Streets Department, work regularly with the urban canopy. Too often, Smith Fichman said, they have not been well coordinated, resulting in the city planning around its trees, rather than planning with them in mind. By connecting efforts across departments and giving residents a more significant stake in the urban forest – including by creating new positions for community organizers and street tree inspectors – the plan aims to get everyone in the city to invest in its success.

That includes our next elected leaders. “If the next mayor embraces this plan and makes it a priority to implement it, that will make all the difference,” said Smith Fichman.

Making environmental justice a reality

The plan “takes it from being a loftier thing that happens in planning or environmental circles and brings it right onto our blocks and our communities,” Huling said.

If the city can expand its tree canopy and better care for existing trees, the plan estimates that over the next three decades, it would result in 400 premature deaths avoided each year, a 12% reduction in crime and $20 million in annual environmental benefits.

“We know it’s needed just by looking at the health statistics in neighborhoods where we have low tree canopy,” said Kim Jordan, co-executive director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project. “We know it negatively impacts people’s health to not have trees helping us deal with hotter temperatures and more intense storms and in filtering our air. For me, the health and environmental justice reasons are the priority.”

“That example also has to be set by the city, and if Parks & Recreation is going to be clear-cutting mature trees, that’s not a great example.”

Kim Jordan, Philadelphia Orchard Project

Potential hurdles – and how to overcome them

In order to fund the plan, Smith Fichman said the city will need to rely, in part, on the $1.5 billion recently set aside for the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program. Jasmine Thompson, director of Philly Forests, said the plan is “comprehensive and intentional,” and she was pleased to see resident perspectives given a spotlight throughout. But she is also worried that the “lofty” funding requirements will hamper its execution.

Recently passed legislation, sponsored by Councilmember Katherine Gilmore-Richardson, will help steer money toward the plan by making developers pay for trees they remove or do not place at project sites. The bill could result in about $1 million per year to support the plan, Smith Fichman said.

For environmental advocates, the plan is a significant step forward. But its success will be measured by outcomes, not ideas. Recent tree-cutting efforts have raised questions about the city’s will to execute the tree plan.

“Developers need to be held accountable for any damage or removal of trees – especially mature trees. But that example also has to be set by the city, and if Parks & Recreation is going to be clear-cutting mature trees, that’s not a great example,” Jordan said. “It’s hard to understand why some of those things have happened when they’re in direct contrast to the stated goals of the plan.

Huling said she has “concerns about the difference between words and actions whenever it comes to the protection of our trees.” Thompson said that although she knows the plan was created by people passionate about urban forestry, “if there’s also massive deforestation happening simultaneously in Philly, then a lot of internal work needs to be done in the city to make sure these priorities are shared and aligned.”

Too often, Huling said, Philadelphians are told they must operate within a “scarcity framework,” in which there aren’t enough resources to deliver everything they need. The city can be a thriving and developing urban center while also preserving and improving upon its green spaces, she insisted. If it’s carried out as intended, the plan could help demonstrate that.

“It would be a shame if this plan sits on a shelf like so many bright ideas in our city planning,” Huling said. “It puts the onus on us as constituents and residents to continue to raise the issue.”

Photo by John Gambacorta on Unsplash


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