The Cleveland Tree Plan

In 2015, the City of Cleveland, Ohio published the Cleveland Tree Plan to provide a comprehensive assessment of the city’s current urban forest and an actionable strategy to restore it.  In addition to identifying strategies for enhancing and restoring the city's urban tree canopy, the plan identifies 25 indicators for assessing the health of the city's urban forest. The report describes restoration and maintenance of the city's urban tree canopy as a critical component of their efforts to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

The benefits of urban tree canopy are also detailed and quantified in the plan. Benefits include improved stormwater management, reduced urban heat island effects, improved air quality, reduced carbon pollution, increased property values, lowered energy costs, and improved wildlife habitats. Tree canopy in Cleveland currently provides over $28 million in quantifiable annual services to residents each year, as well as qualitative benefits are achieved.  Additionally, Cleveland’s trees provide another $25 million in carbon storage services over their lifetime.

The Cleveland Tree Plan integrates equity concerns into their plan through their priority action item #9: To plant with a purpose - trees for neighborhood equity. To reach this goal, the city devised a methodology for prioritizing planting sites that included: overall canopy increase, socioeconomic characteristics, stormwater management, energy savings, heat stress reduction, public health, economic development and neighborhood revitalization, and vacant land use. As explained in more detail in Appendix B of the report: "An equity ranking was devised to assist in the development of strategies for narrowing the gap in canopy at the neighborhood level." Looking at population density, unemployment rates, and child poverty rates, Cleveland identified areas to concentrate planting  that would minimize inequity in tree coverage.

The Union of Concerned Scientists followed up on this initiative by conducting a research study that evaluated tree planting locations in consideration of temperature, census data, and Cleveland’s tree assessment. The study gave equal consideration to both the social and the environmental dimensions of the tree-planting approach to reducing heat. People living in poverty, the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, and those without air-conditioning are among the populations most vulnerable to heat-related illness or death. The scientists also noted that many of these populations are found in lower-income neighborhoods, which are commonly divided along racial or ethnic minority lines in Cleveland. 

The study describes the risk of using equity-blind criteria for identifying potential tree planting locations.  Such a method would prioritize only those areas with the highest temperature-reduction potential. This could mean that neighborhoods that already have extensive vegetation and are home to higher income families would get preference, while lower-income, ecologically-deprived neighborhoods may get overlooked. The study’s findings confirmed the differences in extreme heat exposure along racial and economic status, reinforcing the notion that urban heat island reduction strategies need to consider environmental justice factors.1 

According to the plan, tree planting in Cleveland should be planned based on a “Right Tree, Right Place, Right Purpose” strategy. This addresses social equity concerns by ensuring that the benefits provided by trees are provided to all residents as equally as possible. Equitable distribution of these benefits is a priority for Cleveland and is outlined in full in Appendix B.

Based on the vision and goals, the nine actions were identified for the next five years to rebuild Cleveland’s urban forest. These recommended actions detail the scope of work required of all partners to achieve the goals of this plan. The nine priority actions each contain a lead organization, key partners, executable steps, and progress benchmarks. Additionally, each task has been compiled into an achievement schedule, categorized into short term (2015-2017), midterm (2018-2020) and long term (2021-2040) work.

The priority actions identified by the Tree Plan are:

1: Establish a unified voice, formalize partnerships

2: Develop and implement an outreach and education strategy

3: Develop and implement a funding plan

4: Complete a comprehensive tree inventory

5: Develop and implement a management plan for city-owned trees

6: Undergo an operational review

7: Establish a canopy goal and plan for canopy updates

8: Institute policy changes supportive of urban forestry

9: Plant with a purpose: trees for neighborhood equity

Many actions include multiple smaller steps or recommended projects, which have been delineated in "Action Sheets." The Action Sheets were designed to be working documents to guide and track implementation progress. 

A public tree inventory of Cleveland from the 1940s counted 220,000 street trees. However, that count now down to approximately 120,000 street trees. Tree canopy cover is low (19%, only one quarter of what is possible) and each year an estimated 97 acres of tree canopy is lost. According to the report, at this rate canopy will drop to 14% by 2040. The plan shows that if the city wants to increase its tree coverage to 40 percent by 2040, it would have to plant more than 691,000 trees.

In developing the plan the city also used 25 indicators to assess the health of the city's urban forest in terms of: the city's trees, the organizations and agencies responsible for planting and maintenance, and the management approach. Those indicators were used by the city to determine that the city's performance (low, moderate, or high) across those indicators.

Coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the team of consultants, non-profits, and other stakeholders conducted planning via two processes. First, the team used a general adaptive management approach, which allowed them to assess progress and reevaluate along the way. Second, it applied a system of indicators to assess the sustainability of Cleveland’s urban forest. These indicators were used to understand the current state of the urban forest, identify areas for improvement, and plan for the future. The team also plans to revise the city’s Tree Ordinance to incorporate preservation and environmental justice more directly. In developing the plan, the city partnered with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute, LAND Studio, Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. 

This Cleveland case study demonstrates how cities can prioritize tree planting in neighborhoods where the exposure to extreme heat is greatest and where low-cost planting opportunities can be found. Neighborhood tree grants and community tree planting can be a key components of a city's urban heat island mitigation strategy. Cleveland demonstrates how cities can use socioeconomic and health factors to target tree planting in an equitable way and to reduce risks to those most vulnerable to impacts from extreme heat. 

Publication Date: October 20, 2015

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  • City of Cleveland, Ohio

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