Trees are working for us all year long, but when the summer heat waves hit we really notice the benefits. Trees shade our homes and streets, provide beauty and make our city livable. A tree-lined street gives us opportunities to linger and connect with neighbors. All Philadelphians should be able to access these benefits.

So why are some parts of our city less leafy than others? And why are these often the most vulnerable neighborhoods? Using the Office of Sustainability’s Greenworks Philadelphia plan as a guide, I work with colleagues and partners like the Fairmount Park Conservancy and TD Bank to increase the presence of street trees and reach the ambitious goal of 30 percent tree canopy in all neighborhoods of the city. We started by commissioning a research study from the US Forest Service on our city’s tree canopy.

The study found that “Philadelphia’s residents control the majority of the City’s tree canopy and have most of the land to plant trees,” and “Programs that educate residents on tree stewardship and provide incentives for tree planting are crucial if Philadelphia is going to sustain its tree canopy in the long term.” So if we are going to meet our goal, we need to engage with residents and support them in planting and caring for trees in their own yards.

That’s why we launched the TreePhilly Yard Tree Giveaway Program in 2012. Since then we have given away over 23,000 trees for people to plant in their yards. The TreePhilly team and I prioritize our outreach to neighborhoods with too few trees. We work to build trust around trees by meeting with community leaders, connecting residents with support for tree care and maintenance, and empowering local organizations to advocate for greening in their neighborhood. Each season we improve our methods: nurturing new partnerships, building up returning ones, translating outreach materials, and supporting neighborhood tree planting and care. Nearly half of our events this spring 2019 season were co-hosted with new community partners from high-priority neighborhoods.

The urban forest is a complex system and it includes all of our trees on public and private land in the city. Giving away yard trees is a crucial way to meet Philadelphia’s tree canopy goals, but street trees are also an important piece of the puzzle.

Street trees are an important part of our strategy to meet our tree canopy goal, and we are doing the hard work of engaging residents to plant more of them and more yard trees in neighborhoods like Hunting Park, one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. We are excited to partner with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Tree Tenders program, Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability, the Philadelphia Water Department, and Nueva Esperanza on this important work.

There is more to do to reach our canopy goal, and through creative public/private partnerships, we are offering residents new ways to get access to trees and resources. As we embark on the first-ever Philadelphia Urban Forest Strategic Plan, we will work to find even more ways to help residents plant and care for trees in low canopy areas.

The plan process will include a public outreach campaign to address barriers to participation in planting programs, invite storytelling about trees, and celebrate the value of Philadelphia’s urban forest. It includes an assessment of Philadelphia’s current tree canopy and recommendations for new priority planting areas in the city, using equity and environmental justice as key criteria. Through this planning process, we have an opportunity to explore a range of options for how to meet our tree canopy goals, including an opt-out process for planting street trees, where appropriate.

No matter what, continuing grassroots engagement and community involvement will be the key factors in getting more tree cover across our city.

TreePhilly is currently looking for local groups to host a Fall 2019 community yard tree giveaway. To register interest, visit www.treephilly.org or email us at treephilly@phila.gov.

Erica Smith Fichman is a certified arborist and urban forester. She is the Program Manager for Tree Philly at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, and has been with the department since 2011.