Planting the Seed for an Urban Forest

Baby trees in Iowa City's downtown get their start (Photo from  Iowa City Facebook page )

Baby trees in Iowa City's downtown get their start (Photo from Iowa City Facebook page)

Consider the most important features of a town. What comes to mind first? Houses? Streets? Businesses? City Hall?  What about trees?

John Thomas is a Strong Towns member who believes trees are a vital part of any urban landscape and he’s been working to get his town of Iowa City to plant more of them. It’s a slow process (not surprising, given the subject) but he knows how valuable trees can be, so he’s committed. The threat of the emerald ash borer combined with a loss of tree canopy due to new developments in the town means that the need to plant new trees is more pressing than ever. And of course, trees take decades to reach their full height, so the sooner the town gets started, the better.

John has been on the city council in Iowa City for the past year. He was elected with a group of three other city councilors who share many of his views on what’s important for their town. “We kind of ran as a coalition,” he says. “And we all won. It resulted in a change in the direction that city council would take.”

Having the majority in a seven-person leadership body makes it easier to get priority policies passed. Still, John says in his year on the council, it has taken time to wade through the bureaucracy and get the city’s budget in line with the council’s goals.

Luckily, tree planting fits very well with those goals. The city’s strategic plan includes objectives like building a firm financial foundation, stewarding environmental sustainability, and so on. A strong urban forest can accomplish just about all of those things.

John also argues that planting trees is quite aligned with the goals of Strong Towns because of the incremental nature of the activity and the high return on investment. “The cost [of trees] is remarkably low, but their benefits? One could go on and on about their benefits,” says John. Strong Towns outlined several of these social, economic and environmental benefits in a previous article.

However, one of the challenges John has faced in his goal to get the city planting more trees on public land is that, unlike many towns, Iowa City doesn’t have a volunteer group or nonprofit specifically dedicated to urban forestry on a large scale. He’s seen those be successful and affordable for other cities, so he’s hoping to encourage those sorts of public-private partnerships in his town. He also hopes to help scale up efforts of existing local nonprofits that work on public landscaping and environmental issues such as Project Green.

One of John’s other ideas is to work with school districts to get trees—especially fruit and nut trees, which would provide food in addition to their many other benefits—planted on public school grounds. “Many of our university grounds are remarkable in their character,” John notes. “But when you get down to the elementary school level, they’re deserts.” Trees on school grounds would not only create a more pleasant aesthetic than the current prison yards that most school premises resemble, they could also be a learning opportunity for children. In addition, John would like to see the school districts and the city create joint use agreements so that the newly-planted school grounds could be public spaces for the neighborhood when classes are not in session.

He’s in the beginning phases of this process with his city council but he’s hopeful that work will start quickly. “I’m reaching a point in my life where if we don’t get them in soon, I’m not going to see them in their maturity,” he remarks. “There’s a generational aspect to it. It’s a commitment to the future.”

Have you helped to plant trees in your town? Does your town prioritize street trees? Tell us about it in the comments.

(Top photo of trees on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Photo by vkolikov)

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