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Places: Standing up for the trees so they will stand for us

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Saturday, February 19, 2005

In a city where budget cuts have closed swimming pools and laid off police, planners and other workers, City Council is looking for revenue under every rock, or in the case of Councilman Luke Ravenstahl, behind every tree.

Ravenstahl wants council to repeal the 1998 law that directs proceeds from outdoor advertising on bus shelters into the Shade Tree Trust Fund, which is administered by the Pittsburgh Shade Tree Commission.

What, you didn’t know we had one? There’s a good reason: Although the commission was established in 1911 under the influence of the City Beautiful movement, it was replaced in 1914 by the Street Tree Division in the Bureau of Parks. Revived in 1998 by then-City Councilman Jim Ferlo, the volunteer commission has since gone about its good work largely unsung, funding the planting of 444 trees in Lawrenceville, Uptown, Friendship, Carrick and South Side and training 120 volunteer stewards to care for them.

In the three years that the bus shelter ads have been generating revenue, the trust fund has accumulated about $40,000 annually from the ads. Which is, as Councilman Bill Peduto pointed out at Wednesday’s hearing on the resolution, about 1/100th of 1 percent of the city’s annual budget, give or take a penny or two. If the shade tree money were lumped into the general fund, the city’s budget wouldn’t budge.

But with this little stash and matching state grants, the commission has launched the city’s first tree inventory, which is expected to cost about $200,000. On Monday, arborists from Davey Resource Group began to assess the location, species and condition of the city’s street trees, estimated to number between 40,000 and 60,000 in a 1995 Carnegie Mellon University study.

The inventory, in the planning for three years and part of the commission’s mandate, was the dream of the late city forester Dale Vezzetti, who estimated that Pittsburgh lost 1,500 street trees annually due to lack of maintenance. Nibbled away at over the years, the forestry division he presided over employs 10 people to maintain trees, about a third of the staff it had 40 years ago.

With the lack of manpower, “sometimes it seemed like 600,000 trees” needed tending, former forestry division employee Mark Remcheck told council. Remcheck, a member of the Shade Tree Commission and an extension community forester in Washington County, said Pittsburgh’s forestry division always had a difficult time advocating for a budget because it didn’t know how many trees it had to care for.

The inventory, which will include a Geographic Information System mapping component showing the exact locations of the trees, is the necessary first step in creating a management plan, said commission chair Diana Ames of Friendship. It will identify problem trees, allowing the forestry division to move from crisis mode to proactive management and stay one step ahead of diseases, pest infestations and lawsuits.

And while the inventory is fully funded and will proceed regardless of council’s decision, it will be useless without the funding stream that will allow the city to purchase hardware, software and training for forestry staff to utilize it, Ames said.

She also hopes to use some of the income from the bus shelter ad revenue to hire an arborist who can recruit and train more volunteer stewards to help maintain trees, and to educate the community, including businesses, about the right and wrong way to prune a tree.

“Look at these trees that have been made into hat racks,” Ames said as we drove past a car dealership on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield last weekend. “They’re been topped, which is a horrible way to treat a tree. The new growth that sprouts back is very weak.”

Not only that, they look stunted and ungainly, an aesthetic loss made all the more inexplicable by the absence of power lines running above them.

On 42nd Street in Lawrenceville, Ames points out a young tree that wears a deep, dark scar from not having its support collar removed sooner. In front of a commercial building at the corner of Penn Avenue and 16th Street in the Strip, sweet gum trees have had their tops chopped, a long row of them, again with nary a power line in sight.

On Smallman Street under the Veterans Memorial Bridge, trees were planted a few years back in a place where they were guaranteed to get neither sunlight nor rain. Now the trees are dead and gone, and their expensive metal grates lie empty and unused.

It was a relief to get to Beech Avenue in Allegheny West, widely regarded as the city’s prettiest street, with its well-kept historic houses and herringbone brick sidewalks. But what really sets Beech Avenue apart is its abundance of trees, which form a tall, lacy canopy over the street.

“Even in the wintertime, trees just transform this street,” Ames said. Along with their visual appeal, she added, they provide a sense of security and calm traffic. And while they seem to be as old as this 19th-century neighborhood, most of the trees are littleleaf lindens planted around 1980, said Beech Avenue resident John Canning.

“We know that the trees in our neighborhood have significantly added to the value of homes,” Canning said. “Not only do they look beautiful, but they shade the asphalt streets from the sun and soften noise.”

Some of the proceeds from the Allegheny West house tours pay for tree maintenance, including two late-winter prunings that allowed more sun and air to filter through.

The tree canopy on Beech is so lush because the lindens were planted on both sides of the street and allowed to reach their full height, thanks to federal funding that paid for relocating utility lines and poles to the rear service alleys. But even streets that carry power lines can have one tall tree canopy, with lower-growing trees on the utility side.

“What the inventory can do is give the city a lot of insight on planting the right tree in the right place,” said forester and Shade Tree Commission member Jennifer Arkett, who oversees tree pruning operations for Duquesne Light.

At the hearing, Ferlo, now a state senator, reminded council that funding the Shade Tree Commission was the quid pro quo for allowing advertising on bus shelters. Councilman Alan Hertzberg recalled that what swayed council was using the ad revenue to enhance the trees.

Yanking the commission’s funding now, Canning told council, is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

He’s right. Pittsburgh’s biggest draw will continue to be the quality of life in its neighborhoods. Now more than ever, City Council shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture. Who wants to live in a city that can’t see the urban forest for the trees?

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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