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The Challenges of Increasing Louisville's Tree Canopy

Courtesy Chris Chandler

Public meetings begin this week to share information about Louisville’s draft assessment of the city’s urban tree canopy.

The report found that the city is losing 54,000 trees each yearbecause of factors including age, storms and pests. Nearly all Louisville neighborhoods experienced some drop in tree canopy coverage, which is leading to worsening problems such as the urban heat island effect.

But revitalizing the canopy will take more than just planting trees; it’ll also require private property owners to get on board. The assessment released in March found that more than two-thirds of the city’s land is privately owned. And it concludes that the greatest opportunities to augment Louisville’s tree canopy long-term will be through planting trees on these private lands.

For this effort, the city needs people who are excited about planting trees on their property.

People like Saundra Mucker.

“That’s my beautiful tree!” she said, point to a dogwood covered in green leaf buds next to her home in Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood.

“It didn’t have any leaves on it or anything when it was first put in the ground,” she said. “I am babying it. I talk to it and everything.”

Mucker’s tree was planted a few weeks ago by Louisville Grows, one of the many tree-planting initiatives that have stepped in to try to restore the city’s declining urban tree canopy. She got that one, as well as a small maple tree in the easement by the street.

“It does so much for the topography and the landscape of the community," Mucker said. "It provides shade, it provides something beautiful to look at, and it’s good for the environment."

But not everyone feels this way. While some people really like trees and want them on their property, others still have their doubts.

“I think a big part of it is just that they’ve had a bad experience with a tree in the past,” Valerie Magnuson said. She’s the director of non-profit Louisville Grows.

“They’ve had a limb fall on their house, or they don’t want to rake the leaves, and they just associate it with high maintenance."

For some, these bad experiences stem from an ordinance on trees in city right-of-ways.

The city can plant trees on the easement—the strip of grass between the street and sidewalk. But if the tree needs to be trimmed or removed, it’s on the property owner to get a permit and pay for it.

Andrew Hudson found that out the hard way with a home he used to own in the Highlands.

“There was a sizable maple, probably about 40 years old, in the easement between the sidewalk and the street,” he said. “As far as I knew, it had been a tree that was planted by the city years before.”

The tree was damaged, so Hudson called Public Works about it. Then a few days later, he got a notice in the mail requiring the removal of the tree.

“On our dime, within 40 days,” he added.

This law exists so the city has input on anything that goes in the easement—you don’t want to plant a tree species that’s going to end up growing into the power lines, for example. But for people like Hudson who are told they don’t have a say on what’s planted near their homes but then have to foot the bill, it’s infuriating.

Louisville Urban Forestry Coordinator Erin Thompson said she often plants trees in the right-of-ways, but informs homeowners a few months before to get their input.

“And if anyone comes back to me and says, ‘I don’t want a tree in front of my house,’ I don’t put it there,” she said. “But it is kind of funny because the several times that’s happened, after I’ve planted the trees, several months goes by, and those people contact me and say, ‘I’ve changed my mind. And I want a tree now.’”

Now, as Louisville considers how to protect and augment its tree canopy, it might be a good time to rework that right-of-way ordinance, Thompson said. She’ll be focusing on education, too, about the short and long-term benefits of trees. And she said much of that education will come as more people realize the value of a tree, and share that information with their neighbors.

“It’s kind of like that domino effect,” she said. “It’s got to start small, but as people start to appreciate, they want to participate, too.”

The first public meetingon the urban canopy assessment is Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in the Mayor's Gallery in Metro Hall (527 W. Jefferson Street). The city will also hold meetings on Wednesday, May 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Southwest Library (9275 Dixie Highway) and on Thursday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the East Government Center (200 N. Juneau Drive). Public comments can be submitted online here until the end of the month.

Photo by Chris Chandler