More than half of Portland’s American Rescue Plan Act funding is earmarked for planning and infrastructure to create more spaces to plant trees.
And the planting season has begun, with as many as 60 trees to be planted in the next few months.
City workers began planting on Lancaster Street a few weeks ago. The effort to provide more trees to neighborhoods that have historically had the least amount of tree cover is underway with $250,000 in ARPA funding dedicated to the project.
The city expects to plant an additional 80 trees in the Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods, but other steps must be taken first.
Buying and planting the trees has always been relatively inexpensive, Ethan Hipple, head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said. The challenge, he said, has always been finding spaces where trees will thrive and survive in urbanized areas.
The ARPA funding is split into three categories, Hipple said: $108,000 for infrastructure such as sidewalk alterations to accommodate trees, $115,000 for planting and watering services, including the purchase of trees, and $27,000 for project management and planning.
New wells – holes cut into the sidewalk for trees – are required to create enough space for the trees to thrive. Jeff Tarling, the city arborist, said constructing a new well can cost between $2,000 and $4,500. If there isn’t enough walking space on the sidewalk, the city has to bump out the curb to accommodate a tree.
To assist with planning and construction, the city has hired South Portland engineering firm Sebago Technics. Occurring simultaneously with the execution of ARPA funds is the Canopy Equity Project, including about $10,000 from Project Canopy, through which Sebago Technics is expected to research and map a plan to improve the tree canopy in deficient areas.
Amy Segal, senior landscape architect and project manager at Sebago, said she is excited about the project’s impact. Segal has been involved in tree equity discussions as a member of the city Parks Commission, with her term set to expire in June.
Both Hipple and Segal confirmed that the Parks Commission doesn’t have a role in financial or contracting matters, and as a result Segal said she was never in a situation where she had to recuse herself from commission discussions based on her employment at Sebago Technics.
Urbanized neighborhoods such as Parkside and Bayside have historically had the least amount of tree canopy in the city, and have the lowest tree equity scores, based on an online index that analyzes the equity of a congressional district, comparing demographics and poverty levels to access to the tree canopy.
The city has planted about 30 trees in Bayside and Parkside so far, which was about the total number of trees planted there last year. Hipple said the city is expecting to plant another 80 trees in those neighborhoods starting this fall after the infrastructure is in place. The city’s goal is to plant about 200 trees in total this year.
That includes planting along Elm Street, where trees were removed at the beginning of the year after it was determined that they wouldn’t have lasted for very long because of the sidewalk conditions.
Tarling said infrastructure work to properly accommodate new trees on Elm Street is in progress, and planting should take place by late summer or early fall.
In addition to canopy expansion efforts, tree protection is growing too.
A Heritage Tree Protection Ordinance was amended by the city in 2020 in an attempt to protect the city’s longest-standing trees. There haven’t been any fines levied as a result of the ordinance, but city officials like Tarling and Hipple said they’re happy with the preventive effect it’s had on cutting trees in the city.
The ordinance almost came into play recently with the removal of five white pines at 153 State St. Tarling said those trees were a few inches short of the 24 inches required to be considered heritage trees, and the city found they were damaging a building.
Discussions have been taking place about potentially strengthening the ordinance’s tree protections. City Councilor Andrew Zarro said in an email that tree canopy and equity will likely be brought to a Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting in June.
“If the council is going to look at expanding the tree protection ordinance, we would certainly share information with them on what we think it would take in order to be able to enforce it,” Hipple said.
He added that Parks and Recreation always wants to protect trees when possible, but the ordinance can only be as effective as the ability to enforce it.
While it would be a benefit to expand protections of the trees, he said the department doesn’t currently have the personnel they’d need to complete the additional cataloging, investigation, and processing it would require.
Following the influx of funding from ARPA and the Canopy Project, the 2022 planting surge is expected to continue beyond the typical planting season and is expected to conclude in spring 2023.