CLEVELAND — Once known as the forest city, Cleveland has lost much of its tree canopy in recent decades.
There are many benefits to having a healthy tree cover in the community.
Not only do they improve the quality of air, but trees also help to cool communities down in the hot summer months.
That’s why Cuyahoga County leaders have invested in growing and expanding the canopy across the region with the Healthy Urban Tree Canopy Grant Program, a commitment by the county to grant $1 million a year for five years to communities with interest in planting and maintaining trees.
“We give out grants to communities and other organizations throughout Cuyahoga County to either develop tree plans, maintain existing tree canopy, and also, a big, major part of it is planting new trees to expand the urban tree canopy in Cuyahoga County,” said Jared Bartley, deputy director of Watershed and Education for the Cuyahoga Soil and Water District.
In April, he and executive director Kristen Hall, helped determine which communities should be awarded grants for the fourth round.
According to the U.S. forest service, communities should aim for 40-60% coverage by tree canopy.
Hall said in order to reach those canopy goals down the line, we need to start planting trees now.
“We aren’t going to see that same canopy cover and the many benefits that those trees have for 10, 15, 25 years,” Hall said. “So, we’re really trying to get ahead of the game and focus on planting new trees, so that we don’t find ourselves 80 years from now with no canopy cover whatsoever.”
A 2019 assessment in Cuyahoga County showed that Downtown Cleveland had only 17.9% coverage, while communities further away tend to have a stronger canopy.
Cuyahoga County Planning Initiative Specialist, Allison Ball, said they take that into account when awarding grants.
“We are favoring areas that have lower tree canopy and also trying to look at the equity of the area, getting tree canopy in there because there is a correlation between the equity zones identified in the county and a lower tree canopy,” Ball said.
In 2021, the county identified equity zones, or areas of historic disinvestment.
A low tree canopy in those areas reflects a similar national trend in many cities across the country, according to a 2020 study that links redlining to a low tree canopy.
But rebuilding a tree canopy takes time and money, typically between $400 and $600 a tree.
So, the county wants to make sure the investment is worth it, which is why they send Bartley and Hall to make sure the trees are being planted and cared for correctly.
“We also look to see the mulch is not volcano mulched up the trunk," Bartley said. "It’s off the trunk, and the root flare is exposed. That’s important."
The county’s funds have been used to plant more than 6,750 trees so far, and while it will take time to see progress, Bartley and Hall said the hard work will be worth it.
County leaders said they’ll likely do another assessment once the five-year plan is up.