This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer. Chair of the Public Administration department, Francine Romero, is quoted at length.
Ride the Blue Line light rail extension from uptown and here is what you see.
Just across Interstate 277, a mile and a half from the city’s skyscrapers, is Parkwood Avenue, formerly lined by single-family homes and trees – lots of them.
But the streets around Parkwood Avenue are changing. The small houses are gone, replaced by apartments and townhomes that stretch from one side of a lot to the other.
The trees are missing, too, with knee-high shrubs and a few holly bushes the only green left on some properties.
Six miles up the tracks, a more dramatic scene is unfolding. Gone are more than 140 acres of oak, hickory and pine forests. The only things stretching to the sky now on some lots are utility poles and apartment buildings.
Development like the recent building boom along the Blue Line extension, weak tree-saving policies and an aging canopy help explain why Charlotte has no hope of achieving its goal of growing a canopy that covers 50% of the city by 2050, scientists, environmentalists and city leaders say.
The Arbor Day Foundation and others have long celebrated Charlotte for preserving one of the country’s most expansive urban tree canopies. Mature oak, maple, hickory and tupelo trees sweeten the view across the city.
But the city lost 7,669 net acres of tree canopy – or about three football fields per day – between 2012 and 2018, according to Charlotte’s most recent tree canopy measurement.
The tree loss wasn’t limited to transit corridors, commercial areas or new subdivisions that pop up in once wooded lots. Most of the city’s tree loss has occurred on residential lands not protected by the city’s ordinances, the canopy measurement revealed.
The thinning of the tree canopy reduces more than a city’s charm. Tree cover is a powerful tool to soften climate change effects, among other benefits it gives people.
But it’s tough to protect trees in a city whose population has grown 20% in the past decade and is inching close to one million.
And even the city’s proposed changes to increase its tree protections aren’t enough to grow the canopy, conservationists said.
“Right now, city government is focused on growing Charlotte,” said Chuck Cole, former leader of TreesCharlotte, a local nonprofit. “And I do not think growing Charlotte’s urban forest is part of that.”
50 by 50
When Charlotte City Council set a goal of 50% canopy coverage by 2050 – or 50 by 50, as it is known – the city was emerging from the Great Recession.
It was 2011, and at that time Charlotte was just one percentage point away from its goal.
A year later, TreesCharlotte was established. The nonprofit donates thousands of trees each year and focuses on individual homeowners, the people caring for most of the city’s canopy.
“We felt like we could plant our way out of the problem,” said Doug Shoemaker, ecologist and director of research and outreach at UNC-Charlotte’s Center for Applied GIS.
Then came an onslaught of development that has lasted the better part of a decade.
Since 2011, Charlotte added more than 55,000 housing units – an increase of 17%, U.S. Census Bureau data show.
Communities like Dilworth, Cherry and Cotswold watched as builders tore down homes and trees to build even bigger houses. Massive mixed-use projects in South End and SouthPark took off.
Places like the Monroe Road corridor and Steele Creek area lost acres of forests to multi-family developments.
“The writing was on the wall a while ago,” said Larken Egleston, Charlotte councilman. “Fifty percent by 2050 wasn’t going to be achievable.”
And that wasn’t solely because of developers, Egleston said. Personal property owners, storms, disease and an aging canopy take down thousands of trees, the canopy assessment concluded.
City councilwoman Dimple Ajmera acknowledged that Charlotte was unlikely to meet its 50% canopy goal, adding that the city leaders need to set “realistic expectations” when it comes to tree coverage.
Those expectations have to weigh property rights, development rights and trees, she said.
“We have to balance preserving tree canopy goals with our development goals,” Ajmera said. “There is a balance we’re trying to get to, and I’ll tell you, it’s not easy.”
Charlotte’s regulation of developers, one counterweight to development goals, is too weak to save the canopy, local environmentalists say.
Why care about trees?
Ask environmentalists and city planners why Charlotte should save its canopy and they rattle off the benefits of trees.
Living in neighborhoods with trees reduces stress, improves mental health, student performance and worker productivity, research makes clear.
The ground where trees stand absorbs water to slow runoff. Roots act as natural filters, stopping dirt from washing into sewer systems and pollutants from flowing into streams.
Leaves absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and release oxygen. T hey catch small particles like dust that can create respiratory problems.
Shaded surfaces can be 20 to 45 degrees cooler than unshaded surfaces, the Environmental Protection Agency says. That trait will only become more important as climate change increases the temperature and the intensity of urban heat islands, Shoemaker said.
And trees do all of that for free.
“Trees are the hardest workers in the city, and they’re not unionized,” said Laurence Wiseman, senior advisor of urban forestry for American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
Charlotte was an urban forest
Charlotte has long had a beautiful canopy doing all of that work.
In 2013, American Forests said Charlotte had one of the 10 best urban forests in the nation. No other southeastern city made the list.
The trees weren’t limited to the 100-foot-tall willow oaks that make Myers Park so picturesque.
Bald Cypress trees, cone-shaped evergreens often found in swamps, line Prosperity Church Road in north Charlotte.
And in the fall, red, orange and yellow leaves blanket aptly named neighborhoods such as Sardis Forest and Sardis Woods, near Matthews.
But too often, homeowners, who own about two-thirds of the city’s canopy, and developers, capitalizing on Charlotte’s building boom, are mowing them down, said Rick Roti, president of the Charlotte Public Tree Fund.
“I was just stunned when I would drive by and see what would have been a beautiful oak forest, and now it’s nothing but a clay field,” Roti said. “And no one was doing anything about it.”
The fund’s annual tree planting events have helped plant just under 24,000 trees over the past 14 years.
New construction has contributed to the loss, the tree canopy measurement reported. But so have current homeowners and natural factors.
Charlotte’s canopy dropped from 49% in 2012 to 45% in 2018, according to the most recent canopy assessment. Local leaders suspect it has fallen even more since then.
Some of the heaviest losses between 2012 and 2018 were traced to the Providence Road area of south Charlotte and to the southwest, near Westinghouse Boulevard.
“Overall, the city has a robust amount of tree canopy, but it is under threat…” the report said.
Charlotte vs San Antonio
Charlotte is a bit of a paradox when it comes to its care of trees, said Francine Sanders Romero, chair of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
It’s a city whose government long ago committed to preserving its canopy but the muscle to get that done – local ordinances – appear to be inadequate, she said. Last year, Romero published a research paper that compared San Antonio’s tree protection efforts to Charlotte’s.
Both cities were losing trees, though San Antonio’s loss seems to have leveled off. Romero attributed that to San Antonio’s strong tree protections.
San Antonio requires that developers save 35% of a property’s trees if they’re building single-family homes and 40% if it’s a multi-family or commercial project.
The city also has canopy requirements, meaning that developers would have to add trees even if there were no trees on the property to begin with.
Those rules don’t exist here.
But developers recognize that trees are amenities and do their best to save them, said Rob Nanfelt, executive director of the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, also known as REBIC.
They just have other factors to consider. Large sidewalks, expansive drainage areas and second units on a property, like a mother-in-law apartment, compete with trees for space, Nanfelt said.
Plus, more units and fewer trees along a transit corridor like the Blue Line could prevent urban sprawl and tree loss elsewhere, he said.
“There are a lot of tree protections in place, and builders do what they can to preserve trees,” Nanfelt said. “T hey understand they’re amenities and what buyers are looking for… But we also have to take into account other factors and needs.”
The Blue Line extension began its march to the university area when construction started in 2013. Since then, it has towed with it development projects that have cleared hundreds of acres of trees.
“For someone who hasn’t ridden this corridor, it’s like peeling the curtain back and saying holy crap,” said Shoemaker during a ride on the extension with Observer reporters last month.
The train’s first stop outside of uptown is Parkwood Avenue, in the Optimist Park neighborhood.
Optimist Park used to be predominantly working class and made up of Black families. But with the light rail has come gentrification.
Since 2010, the area’s white population has increased more than 400%, compared to about 20% for Black residents, census data show.
Between 2012 and 2018, the neighborhood lost 14% of its canopy, according to an analysis by the University of Vermont and UNCC’s Center for Applied GIS. Only six neighborhoods across the city lost more.
American Forests, which calculates canopy coverage for cities across the country, estimates that trees shaded 20% of Optimist Park in 2019, one of the lowest totals in Charlotte.
The lack of canopy makes Optimist Park 5-degrees hotter than Plaza Midwood, which sits just two miles away and has twice the canopy coverage, the group estimated.
In some cases, new box-shaped apartment buildings and their parking lots take up all but a sliver of the lots they stand on. The only greenery left is a row of boxwood shrubs.
“I’ve always said that I don’t want a community that is concrete and metal that doesn’t fit in, and when you look at it, it’s cold,” said James Atkinson, a longtime Optimist Park resident and community leader. “That’s how it is becoming.”
Shoemaker called the area “a classic case of infill development,” new construction on existing lots that in Charlotte sometimes replaces single-family homes with apartment buildings.
Under Charlotte’s ordinance, infill development does not require builders save or plant any trees on private property.
“It shouldn’t even be called the tree-save ordinance. It should be called the growth ordinance,” Cole said.
Charlotte does impose tree-save rules on other types of development, including the building of single-family homes, multi-unit complexes and commercial buildings.
But those rules are too weak, said Cole, Shoemaker, Wiseman and others.
If developers want to build a residential subdivision in Charlotte, they’re required to save just 10% of the property’s trees.
If their project consists of multi-family or commercial buildings, they must save 15%.
Or, if allowed, they can ignore the tree-save requirements and clear the lot. But they must save trees elsewhere – on other property they own or by contributing to a fund the city uses to acquire and protect the canopy somewhere else in Charlotte.
“Charlotte needs to make a business case for everything it does,” Shoemaker said. “When we revisited the tree ordinance, we were highly aware of the very strong real estate lobby in the city. T hey worked hard to keep it weak.”
A new goal
Several miles from Parkwood Avenue, over busy intersections and past warehouses being converted to apartments, riders get a glimpse of what Charlotte used to look like, long before it became a bustling banking city.
Just behind businesses that line North Tryon Street are acres of dense woods.
In some areas, 60-foot oak and pine trees stand so close together that it’s impossible to see deep into the forests, let alone spot the deer and red-tail hawks that call them home.
But a wave of new restaurants, retail stores and apartments are transforming that part of the Blue Line extension, too.
Directly across from the light rail’s University City Boulevard Station, 14 acres of woods have been plowed to make room for about 300 apartment units.
It’s hard to find a single tree that avoided the bulldozers.
“I think that’s an appalling amount of tree clearing,” said Wiseman, who looked at aerial before and after photos of the parcel. “If it isn’t an ecological disaster, it’s pretty close. It’s cleared. It’s totally cleared.”
Tim Porter, Charlotte’s chief urban forester, said changes along the Blue Line extension are teaching city officials about the importance of a strong tree canopy preservation program.
Some change is afoot. How to protect the tree canopy is being discussed in meetings about the planned Silver Line, a light rail system that would run from Gaston County through uptown and south to Union County.
And the city is taking steps to strengthen tree protection in its Unified Development Ordinance, which the city council will vote on this year, he said.
The proposed ordinance calls for:
So a developer removing an acre of trees would have to pay $28,894, rather than the current number of $12,015.
Even with these changes, it’s unlikely Charlotte will keep its “50 by 50” goal, Porter said.
A formal determination on that could come when the city begins to update its Urban Forest Master Plan late this year.
It could be that Charlotte does away with a city-wide canopy cover goal altogether, Porter said, in favor of neighborhood goals.
Urban uptown, for example, could have a lower goal than a place dense with trees, such as Providence Plantation near Interstate 485 in south Charlotte.
Cole, the former TreesCharlotte leader, said the city’s proposals would try to slow canopy loss. But none, he noted, talk about increasing the canopy.
That saddens Cole, who predicts Charlotte could end up with only 35% tree canopy or less, not 50%, once the city is fully developed.
“It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking to see a movement like trying to save our urban forest start early enough to make a difference,” he said. “But simply because city government’s focus is no longer on canopy growth, it’s not going to happen. That’s what it boils down to.”
Gavin Off, Staff Writer, ‘Tree canopy ‘under threat’ Environmentalists say Charlotte should require more protection of its trees especially in this age of climate change’, Charlotte Observer, The (online), 16 Jan 2022 3A ‹https://infoweb-newsbank-com.libweb.lib.utsa.edu/apps/news/document-view? p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/187937CB6BE9AB30›
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