Nowhere to go but up: Growing metro Detroit's tree canopy

After being battered by Dutch elm disease and then emerald ash borers, Kevin Sayers says the number of trees in metro Detroit and Michigan's other urban centers has nowhere to go but up.
"Right now we've hopefully bottomed out, in a sense, and we're moving up the scale or up the cycle again," says Sayers, who is the state urban forestry coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "While the urban tree population is relatively low, it's on the upswing and there is a lot of potential."
Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the Greening of Detroit, says Michigan has been particularly hard hit because in many cases emerald ash borers killed ashes that were themselves planted to replace lost elms. She says the two events significantly reduced the metro area's canopy cover–the amount of an area visibly covered by treetops when viewed from the air.
Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the Greening of Detroit"Really, across the state and particularly the metropolitan area, we've still got a ways to go just to recover from the emerald ash borer crisis, much less to get to the optimum 40-45 percent canopy number," Witt says.
And as the metro area works to rebuild its tree population, there are significant benefits to be unlocked. Witt rattles off a list of them, from the fact that trees can increase property values to the numerous studies finding that trees and other natural features increase mental and physical wellbeing.
They can also increase the wellbeing of a city's infrastructure itself. Witt notes that the asphalt, concrete, and steel in a major city can make an urban area significantly warmer, in what's known as a heat island effect. But adding tree cover can mitigate that effect and increase the lifespan of the manmade materials that cause it–notably, for Michiganders, the asphalt.
"The lifespan of roads is increased when they're shaded," Witt says. "It's tough for them to be exposed to such extreme temperatures all the time. If you've got a shaded streetway, in the long run you're going to have less potholes."
Witt says it's easy to underestimate the value associated with planting urban trees.
"It's quite frankly something that people tend to poo-poo a little bit, like, 'Oh, you know, it's just a beautification project.'" she says. "But going back to some of those psychological and health benefits, you really can't underestimate the power of a beautification project because it does do so many of those other things."
Challenge and innovation in the city
In the metro area, the biggest need for such projects is in Detroit, where Witt notes tree canopy cover is only about 18-22 percent. But the city is also where some of the metro area's most inventive urban forestry work is taking place. Sayers notes that in his work, forestry is generally considered a function of local governments. But in Detroit some interesting major new projects are popping up on privately owned land.
One such example is Hantz Woodlands, a project of the financial services firm Hantz Group. Hantz purchased roughly a square mile of vacant land across scattered sites on Detroit's east side in 2013 and has since planted it with 20,000 trees. Hantz Woodlands president Mike Score says the project involved removing trees that he describes as "weeds," including paulownias and mulberries, and replanting with trees including sugar maples, white birches and more.

Mike Score, president of Hantz Woodlands
Score says the new forest is a safer and more attractive neighborhood landmark than the preexisting "thickets," and notes that Hantz is working with local schools to conduct educational programs on the site. Two hundred Southeastern High School students were among the volunteers who helped with Hantz's spring planting this year. Score notes the plots also have a broad variety of short- and long-term commercial uses.
"We're not obligated to do anything with [the trees]," he says. "But we could sell them as nursery stock. We could sell them as lumber. We can use them as a platform for education tourism enterprises that would generate revenue. We could lease out our grounds for recreational purposes…There are a lot of different uses."
Another unique element of Detroit's forestry situation is the fact that most new planting on public land is handled by the Greening of Detroit, the nonprofit Witt represents, while the city itself is still struggling with a backlog of dead and otherwise under-maintained city trees. Although the Greening waters and maintains any new trees it plants for their first three years, Sayers cautions that it's important not to "put the cart before the horse" by placing too many new trees on the city's already-overfilled plate.
However, he says, he "wouldn't discourage [new plantings] until it becomes an extra burden that they're placing on the city, unless and until the city can beef up its capacity to deal with things."
Witt says there's an "interesting conundrum" in the dynamic between urban forests and overstressed city services.
"Think about if we had a really green and healthy environment, and all of these other social problems that we're forced to spend a lot of time and money and attention on right now were diminished as a result of having this healthy environment that made people feel better, made them act better, made their property worth more," she says. "We could afford to take better care of all the other stuff that we have."
Sprouting in the suburbs
Of course, the city isn't the only part of the metro area that could stand to benefit from urban forest development.
"Any kind of urbanized area generally needs some tree canopy help," Witt says. "As you get further out the canopy gets a little bit denser, but…I've personally talked to folks within Ferndale and Oak Park and Hazel Park within the last year about canopy restoration kind of work."
The Greening is currently making plans to partner again with one such initiative in Royal Oak, which has been slowly spearheaded over six years by one Royal Oak native. Since 2009, Serena Egigian has been organizing to plant a corridor of trees alongside and in the median of Woodward running through Royal Oak, Huntington Woods, Berkley and Birmingham.
Egigian worked with the city of Royal Oak, the Woodward Avenue Action Association, and a landscape architect in drawing up a project plan, which was completed in 2012. MDOT contributed about 150 trees to the project and the Greening planted them the same year. Egigian then became disengaged from the project for a couple of years due to the deaths of both her parents, but she's recently thrown herself back into the effort, bringing on board A.J. Desmond and Sons Funeral Home to partner with the Greening in offering memorial trees along Woodward for bereaved families.
Egigian admits that the trees planted so far are only a small step towards her total vision, and that it will take "years" to complete the project. But as a self-described "concerned citizen," the motivations behind Egigian's effort are much the same as some of the benefits cited by an urban forestry professional like Witt.
"I think it makes for a safe environment and it keeps people happy," Egigian says. "I think there's a lot of tension and I just think that when your environment is pretty and nice, people are happier for it."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

This story is a part of a statewide Forest Management Community Impact Series edited by Natalie Burg. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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