Elm Street stump
Traffic passes a tree stump on Elm Street in Portland on Nov. 24. The Bayside neighborhood is one of half a dozen where the tree canopy is not up to standards maintained in the rest of the city. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Its nickname is no mistake: Portland’s overall tree canopy is large.

But conditions in some neighborhoods, particularly Bayside and East Bayside, suggest it may not be the Forest City for everyone.

Now, the underserved communities are to benefit from a “planting surge” of as many as 80 trees next spring thanks to $250,000 from the American Rescue Plan.

Jeff Tarling
Jeff Tarling, Portland’s city arborist, beside an oak tree in Kennedy Park on Nov. 29. Tarling said several factors contribute to a lack of trees in Bayside. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Tree Equity, calculated by the nonprofit conservation group American Forest, scores whether neighborhoods have enough trees for residents to experience all the health, economic, and climate benefits trees have to offer. 

Portland’s overall score is 87, with most neighborhoods ranging in the 80s and 90s.

However, Portland’s tree equity report estimates it would need more than 8,700 trees to achieve an equity rating of 75 across the city. The shortage is concentrated in six of the city’s almost 50 neighborhoods.

Bayside and East Bayside have two of the lowest scores in the city: 46 and 58 respectively. The neighborhoods are outliers against the Forest City’s almost perfect tree canopy scores, and are also home to the city’s highest percentages of people of color.

Jeff Tarling, the city arborist, said areas like Bayside aren’t purposely underserved. He said a lack of planting space gets in the way of resolving the shortfall.

Tarling said the tree equity scores have been helpful for the city in determining which neighborhoods lack trees, and help forestry officials start looking for spaces to plant. 

With ARPA funding, he said, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department hopes to address tree cover discrepancies, particularly in Bayside. That will require the proper means to plant new trees and maintain their growth, including efficient watering equipment and raised tree planters to protect them from salt and accident damage.

Ethan Hipple, the Parks and Rec director, said the city has been trying to address the tree canopy discrepancy in lower-income areas for several years. 

Hipple explained that while trees themselves are rather inexpensive, the cost is in finding space to plant them and implementing the proper plan so they can thrive. He said urbanized neighborhoods suffer because of the volume of pavement and underground utilities in addition to the lack of green space. 

The city typically plants between 170 and 200 trees each year, including 30 in Bayside last spring, Hipple said. While that’s a step in the right direction, he said additional resources are required to do more, which is where ARPA funding comes in.

Sarah Michniewicz
Bayside Neighborhood Association President Sarah Michniewicz, beside a diseased cherry tree on Lancaster Street in Portland on Nov. 24, is cautiously optimistic the city can make progress toward resolving its tree canopy inequity. (Portland Phoenix/ Jim Neuger)

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said tree cover is “vitally important,” especially in historically poor, neglected neighborhoods like Bayside. The most accessible green space the neighborhood has is Bayside Trail, but access to it is limited by two blocks of industrial buildings, scrap yards, and vacant lots, Michniewicz said.

Tree equity evaluates factors such as poverty rates and average surface temperatures. Bayside has a poverty rate of 75 percent with several homeless shelters, and one of the highest surface temperatures in Portland at 91 degrees due to lack of tree canopy.

Historically, trees aren’t the only indication that Bayside has been disadvantaged. A 1935 redline map in the Maine Historical Society collection labels Bayside as a Polish and Italian neighborhood, and outlines it in red as “hazardous” for its “Grade of Security.”

Redlining was used to perpetuate inequality by limiting financial services to particular neighborhoods depending on racial or ethnic composition.

Printed guidelines that went along with the map directed evaluators to rate the neighborhoods on details such as occupations, income, and even “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or low-grade populations.”

While redlining was outlawed in 1968 with the federal Fair Housing Act, the historical society’s “Begin Again” exhibit details the lasting effects it could leave on neighborhoods: “The damage had already been done – communities were already established, the seeds of wealth were already planted and generations of Americans were used to segregated living.”

While ARPA funding is the vehicle for the city to address discrepancies in Bayside, it will require more than just planting. 

Much of the planned planting surge in Bayside will include replacement of failing trees or empty planters – improving on those spaces, Hipple said. Part of the solution involves cutting into sidewalks and raising trees out of the ground to ensure they’re protected against road salt, which is a big threat to trees in urban areas.

Elm Street ash trees
A car passes ash trees targeted for removal along Elm Street in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The human need for trees is a challenge, Tarling added, because putting them in these new locations is essentially forcing them to grow in places they normally wouldn’t. He said the reality is that there’s more to an empty planter on any given street: chances are there’s more of a reason behind it, such as the tree struggling to grow with infrastructure around it or negative impact from salt or storm damage.

Portland has a “Heritage Tree Protection Ordinance” which discourages the removal and trimming of “heritage trees” on private property within Portland’s “historic districts.” These neighborhoods, including the West End and Munjoy Hill, tend to have higher-end tree equity scores (92 and 94, for example) and have a better canopy. They also show lower rates of poverty and unemployment.

Many of these neighborhoods were also listed as “Best” and “Still Desirable” on the 1935 redlining map, which suggested the newest and most lucrative places for lending purposes.

Heritage trees are typically protected if they have a diameter of 24 inches or more, meaning older trees are being safeguarded – and the now-older neighborhoods that were better off in 1935 can benefit from that.

Meanwhile, the newer neighborhoods like Bayside, with newer trees – which need to keep them the most – have no protections in place. Tarling said that they always try to save trees when they can, but redevelopment can interfere.

Michniewicz said she was alerted a few weeks ago by the Public Works Department about the planned removal of four ash trees on Elm Street. She said it was disappointing to hear, but the outreach was appreciated. Michniewicz said city staff told her an upcoming construction project would be too disruptive for the trees to survive.

Avery Yale Kamila, an organic land care professional, expressed concerns that Public Works projects have continually taken trees from Bayside. She said she’s concerned that trees are being seen as a burden and obstacle to infrastructure, rather than a benefit.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the Elm Street project is being reevaluated to make adjustments that will allow the trees to remain. “Public Works has an immense interest in preserving trees,” she said. 

Hipple and Tarling both said they’ve been working in tandem with Public Works to discuss the balance between infrastructure development and the need for trees. They said DPW is responsible for improving sidewalks to meet federal guidelines that can often impact trees, which is why they collaborate on how to proceed with construction.

Tarling said Public Works “has always been supportive,” of the tree canopy effort. He said it’s a “global issue” that trees are sometimes looked at as an obstacle to development when they should be looked at in terms of their many benefits.

Parks and Rec plans to use the additional funding to bring in a consultant over the winter to help with bigger picture solutions to help address tree equity in neighborhoods like Bayside.

The spring planning phase for 2022 will have a specific focus on bolstering Bayside’s canopy; the 80-tree surge is expected to be in addition to the standard number of trees planted each year. 

Michniewicz said she is hopeful about improvements in the next few years. 

But until then, she said, the Bayside Neighborhood Association plans to continue its efforts to support tree equity “so one day Portland can be a Forest City for all neighborhoods.” 

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