The sprinter van navigating city streets was wrapped with a picture of a great blue heron. Its owners — keepers of a 30-square-mile watershed in Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties — call it Creek Force 1.
Normally, it takes people on tours. But last week, Creek Force 1 delivered 24 free saplings to homes in North Philly neighborhoods around Tacony Creek Park, some of the communities the city has identified as needing more greenery. Trees help purify air and water, cool neighborhoods with their shade, improve residents’ mental and physical health, and boost property values.
Last fall, Olney and East Oak Lane residents picked up 50 trees at the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership’s tree giveaway. But the coronavirus pandemic canceled the spring event, so "we decided we would adapt,” said Julie Slavet, the group’s executive director.
Dropping off trees seemed the safest option.
“We also love taking out the van,” Slavet said.
For the first time, Philadelphia and its partners offered the delivery option to all residents, since the pandemic canceled community events and limited giveaways. They didn’t want to waste a planting season as the city works toward its goal of covering 30% of every neighborhood with tree canopy. From 2008 to 2018, Philadelphia lost 6% of its overall tree canopy — the equivalent of more than 1,000 football fields worth of tree cover. Clearing for new construction and landowner removal have contributed to the loss.
The Department of Parks and Recreation planned to give away more than 1,000 yard trees at 23 events across the city this spring, and saw its largest pool of applications for community partnerships since giveaways began in 2012, said Jack Braunstein, manager of the TreePhilly program. Last weekend, 157 residents picked up free yard trees by appointment at two socially distanced events. The city planned to deliver more than 100 additional trees by the end of May. The varieties include Eastern redbud, Chinese chestnut, pagoda dogwood, European pear, and fig.
"We’re really excited to have something going, especially because trees provide these essential benefits for the long-term health of communities in Philadelphia,” Braunstein said. “We really have to not lose sight of those underlying environmental conditions in the midst of this crisis because, really, it’s all connected.”
Tree planting events across the city are moving to the fall in the hope that gatherings will be allowed then.
One byproduct of the pandemic may be a slightly greener Philadelphia, advocates said, as residents stuck inside gaze out of windows and wish they had something pretty to look at, and as more people think of their own yards as getaways.
Community members looking to make a difference can plant trees, Braunstein said. The city provides mulch and instructions on choosing and caring for them. Residents are responsible for watering their yard and street trees while they’re young and caring for them for life.
Migdalia Rosado, 57, loves the white flowers that sprouted this spring on the magnolia tree in the backyard of her Juniata rowhouse. And she loves how the sapling inspires her granddaughter’s art projects and attracts wildlife. Despite a back injury, she picked up her tree and one for a neighbor at a giveaway event last year.
A few months ago, as she watched a bird make its nest on her air-conditioner in her front yard, she decided she should have a tree there, too. With giveaway events canceled, she looked online to find one.
“But I couldn’t afford it because of the shipping and handling they charge,” said Rosado, who has had several strokes and lives off disability payments. "The tree was affordable, but they get you on the shipping.”
Then she discovered the free tree drop-offs. On May 22, Creek Force 1 delivered an American plum tree.
“This is a godsend,” Rosado said.
Tim Ifill, associate director of trees for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, called planting “an investment in the future.”
This spring, the group’s volunteers planned to plant 700 street trees in the region, including 350 in the city, prioritizing communities without much canopy cover. Those tend to be neighborhoods with higher percentages of low-income residents, minority residents, or renters. Only property owners or residents working with horticultural society volunteers can request street trees.
The city had already started preparing some sidewalks for trees when the horticultural society canceled events in mid-March. Like the city, the group will plant more trees in the fall to try to make up for the spring cancellations.
“We have two planting windows every year, and it really hurts us to lose one,” Ifill said. “We don’t want to have to lose half a year’s work because of the coronavirus.”
Usually, volunteers go door-to-door or to neighborhood events to persuade residents to adopt trees, so recruitment during the pandemic has been challenging.
Marcus Ferreira, chair of the South Street West Business Association, is a “tree tender” who leads a group of volunteers in planting and caring for trees in Southwest Center City for the horticultural society. The volunteers “eagerly anticipate” each planting, he said, and were “raring to go.”
“It’s like awaiting a vacation,” he said.
Ferreira is concerned about climate change, air quality, and water pollution, so he said planting trees “is something I can do to act locally while thinking globally.”
“It’s one of those things that I feel like I can take agency in my life to help this planet that we live on heal itself,” he said. “To me, that’s very powerful.”
Gabriella Paez, education and community development coordinator for the nonprofit Esperanza, said Hunting Park residents want to green their neighborhood as part of its revitalization. The neighborhood, which is heavily Hispanic, has one of the lowest percentages of tree canopy cover in Philadelphia and is one of its most sweltering communities.
Esperanza hosted the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s first bilingual tree care training in 2018. It has distributed close to 1,000 yard trees since 2014, and planted more than 100 street trees since 2018, Paez said. The group plans to delay its spring giveaway of 100 trees and plant more than 50 this fall.
“Even if I have to go out on my own and plant them,” Paez said, “they will be planted.”
On the opposite end of the city, Susan Posternock, 44, recalled how large, beautiful trees once lined and shaded her Passyunk Square block.
“It was just a lovely block to be on,” said Posternock, a librarian at a law firm.
Then, in 2018, the city tore up the street and sidewalks to replace aging pipes. Many old trees died. So Posternock and her neighbors have filled gaps with saplings from the city. Last fall, she planted a crab apple tree in front of her rowhouse. The neighbors know it’ll take a while for their saplings to grow into the giants they’re replacing.