“It’s a passion that I have, with the trees,” he says. “And it’s something we’re going to need to have the public buy into.”
As the City of Akron’s arborist, Malish is heading the city’s effort to maintain its tree canopy — the leaves and branches of every tree in the city — which currently covers just under 35% of the nearly 40,000 acres within city limits.
In February, the city released a report on the state of its tree canopy. Performed by Davey Resource Group, the report compares data from 2011 to data from 2018, and found that Akron’s canopy cover has fared well over the last decade compared to similar cities, outpacing Boston, Massachusetts, Lexington, Kentucky and Providence, Rhode Island.
The report also details the many social, economic and public health benefits of a healthy urban tree canopy, like lower levels of air pollution, fewer instances of asthma, lower surface temperatures and lower electricity bills.
But Akronites living in neighborhoods with low tree canopy cover — who are disproportionately Black and low-income — experience the exact opposite of those social, economic and public health benefits, says James Hardy, the city’s deputy mayor of integrated development.
Both Akron mayor Dan Horrigan and Akron City Council have endorsed the no net loss strategy when it comes to developing a plan for the city’s tree canopy. But Hardy and Malish say maintaining current canopy cover comes with its own set of financial and logistical challenges — alongside a reckoning with the city’s past.
With just 10% of the tree canopy’s square mileage on city-owned property, the pair say they’ll need the public’s help to spur meaningful change.
Where are we headed — and how do we get there?
Between 2011 and 2018, Akron lost nearly 2% of its total tree canopy — mostly a result of the city’s $1.4 billion EPA-mandated sewer overhaul project. Even without the loss attributed to the sewer project, the city’s canopy is still getting smaller.
If officials don’t implement measures to maintain the city’s current tree canopy cover, it will shrink by nearly 5% over the next 20 years, according to an estimate by Davey Resource Group Inc.
Once the canopy shrinks, it’s difficult and expensive to regain. Davey Resource Group estimates growing canopy cover by just 5% over the next 20 years would cost the city nearly $100 million.
In comparison, maintaining current canopy cover — which the report calls a “no net loss strategy” — would cost the city just $48 million over the next 20 years, and would help ensure the tree canopy’s valuable environmental and economic benefits remain intact.
Currently, the city’s tree canopy diverts more than 289 million gallons of stormwater runoff across the city every year, and stores about 1.8 tons of carbon — ecosystem perks with a combined estimated value of nearly $109 million.
A brief history of Akron’s trees
Fifty years ago, urban renewal projects swept the nation, destroying neighborhoods and displacing millions of Black and low-income Americans. In 1970, Akron broke ground on its own urban renewal project: the now decommissioned Innerbelt system.
The Innerbelt was designed to reduce commute times for white, middle-class suburbanites still working jobs Downtown.
“Essentially, people who live in the core city are an afterthought, or a nuisance in terms of achieving that goal,” Hardy says. “And, of course, there’s a whole bunch of racial components around that as well.”
Construction of the highway displaced thousands of predominantly Black and low-income Akronites, and the neighborhoods most affected by the Innerbelt’s construction never fully recovered the structures, economies and communities it destroyed.
For Hardy, it’s not surprising that Black and low-income Akronites suffer most when it comes to poor air quality, and high asthma rates, surface temperatures and electricity bills in their neighborhoods as a result of low canopy cover.
There’s a direct correlation, Hardy says, between low canopy cover and the city’s decades-old urban renewal projects: “You’re displacing a lot of existing neighborhoods, business districts — relocating folks. But you’re also creating an incredible amount of concrete. And that’s something that often gets missed.”
Low tree canopy cover creates poor health outcomes for Black and low-income residents
In the Downtown, University Park, Summit Lake, South Akron and East Akron — where the highest average household incomes are just $33,000 per year — current tree canopy cover is below 23%.
In those neighborhoods, air pollution and instances of asthma are among the highest in the city — both public health issues Malish and Hardy say more trees could help mitigate.
Kids living in neighborhoods with low percentages of canopy cover also score low on the Child Opportunity Index, which analyzes 29 different social, educational and environmental factors that can predict things like health and educational outcomes.
When kids don’t have a chance to interact with nature in their own neighborhoods, they may miss out on the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outside, like increased self-confidence, creativity and ability to focus, along with lower stress and anxiety levels.
Downtown, University Park, South Akron and East Akron, have such low canopy cover that they’ve also been identified as heat islands — a phenomenon in which densely populated urban neighborhoods with few trees become significantly hotter than neighborhoods further from the city’s center.
Because heat islands are often concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, the spike in electricity bills and the unrelenting summer heat can be difficult to manage, especially for the nearly 90,000 older adults living in Summit County — who overwhelmingly depend on fixed, Social Security income to cover bills and other necessities.
Current canopy cover benefits whiter, wealthier neighborhoods
In Merriman Valley, Merriman Hills and Fairlawn Heights — all predominantly white neighborhoods, where even the lowest average household income tops $102,000 per year — tree canopy cover ranges between 57% and 62%.
As a result, those neighborhoods are more likely to experience lower rates of asthma, lower air pollution, a combined 24,000 gallons of diverted stormwater runoff and surface temperatures at least 7 degrees cooler than neighborhoods closest to the center of the city.
The city’s canopy study includes a series of socioeconomic maps that Hardy says mirror historic redlining and depressed home values across the city.
“The maps don’t lie,” he says. “And they don’t tend to change.”
How and where the city plans to use its funding
To maintain current canopy levels, Malish says the city will need to plant at least 6,500 trees each year. Now, it’s Malish and Hardy’s job to make sure those trees are planted and maintained equitably.
To do that, Hardy says the city will target neighborhoods like Middlebury, University Park, East Akron and South Akron, and will fund tree planting in those areas using a portion of Akron residents’ sewer bills — which have become a financial burden for some Akronites in recent years as a result of the city’s sewer project.
The sewer project is on schedule to be completed by 2027. After that, residents should see sewer rates drop, Hardy says. But as sewer rates decline, so will available funding to help maintain the city’s tree canopy.
By 2025, Hardy hopes to see an increase in the city’s budget as a result of the city’s push for new development and population growth. If that happens, the city could pay for tree planting and maintenance with dollars from its general fund.
Regardless, Malish says maintaining the city’s current canopy cover just isn’t possible without public support, including the commitment of businesses and residents to plant, pay for and care for trees on their private properties.
Public buy-in: the city needs help to plant trees on private land
Encouraging residents to plant their own trees will be a big part of the city’s tree planting and management plans over the next decade.
Malish says the city already gives away thousands of saplings to residents each year, but plans to step up efforts to help educate the public about the benefits of a healthy canopy.
Using software created by Davey Resource Group Inc., Malish is able to track every available planting spot in the city — including locations on private property.
That allows the city to target specific blocks or parcels, and contact residents directly about tree giveaways and the community benefits of replanting trees when they are damaged, diseased or otherwise removed.
But to achieve Akron’s goal of no net canopy loss over the next two decades, the city will have to commit to creative solutions like reforesting vacant lots, using special high-quality soils, embracing neighborhood and community groups who offer to help or installing rubber sidewalks to mitigate infrastructure damage from root systems.
In spite of the challenges, Hardy says the city’s tree maintenance plan is fully funded for the next five years, which allows the city time to get creative with planting strategies on private properties.
“I’m really banking on the support and the involvement of our larger community, both the business and the residential communities in Akron, to really get how important trees are,” Hardy says. “The public health benefits. The economic benefits… [trees] increase foot traffic. They increase safety. They do all these different things, and I think a lot of people just don’t know that.”
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