Standing up for city trees

Our view: Outcry against cuts along the Grand Prix route shows Baltimore values its urban forest

August 15, 2011

However distressing it was to learn that the city is cutting down dozens of mature trees in the downtown area to make way for next month's Grand Prix auto race, the fact that so many Baltimoreans spontaneously rose up in protest is an encouraging sign. Baltimore's tree canopy — the proportion of the city shaded by trees — doesn't often get the attention it deserves as a critical part of the urban infrastructure. The emphatic response of local residents shows that plenty of people still take the issue of their city's tree cover very seriously.

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 people signed an online petition to halt the thinning of downtown's already spotty tree cover, and last week organizers went to court to block any more cutting in the area. Though that legal effort ultimately fizzled, the group did win clarification of the city's plan to eventually replace more than 30 trees that are being culled for the Grand Prix with nearly 200 new ones along the race course and in other downtown spots where trees are either missing or dead.

The outcry should serve as a wake-up call to city officials about the importance of preserving and maintaining Baltimore's tree canopy, which has been steadily declining in recent years due to commercial and residential development and the paving over of previously green spaces. Over the last decade, the city has lost the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of trees that have not been replaced.

Until last year, the Department of Recreation and Parks had been planting about 1,800 new trees a year on public streets and properties. But that effort was halted by city budget cuts. Since then, the task has been taken over by Tree Baltimore, an initiative of the mayor's office to establish public-private partnerships to increase the city's tree canopy.

Tree Baltimore has planted about 6,000 trees a year since it was created in 2008. But it only works with private property owners and so can't plant new trees on the streets of distressed inner-city neighborhoods, where their environmental and health benefits are most needed.

Trees freshen the air by absorbing vehicle emissions. They cool homes and business. They exert a calming effect on people's emotions that helps them cope better with the stresses of urban life. And their presence increases the value of urban properties and makes city homes more appealing to prospective buyers.

There are good reasons to be concerned whenever city trees are cut down. Preserving and expanding Baltimore's green canopy is one of the best long-term investments the city can make in its future. This month's vigorous protest against cutting trees along the Grand Prix route suggests that's something large numbers of citizens already realize, even if their elected officials don't.

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