20 years as Tree City USA

Published: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 9:07 p.m.
Today is Arbor Day and Gainesville celebrates our 20th year of participation in the National Arbor Day Foundation's Tree City USA program.
Many American cities hold this designation. None so deservedly as our community, but then I would think that.
During the past year, The Sun referred to me as Gainesville's "long-time arborist." I've been watching our trees for 15 years!
Twenty years ago, we were like other cities. Forests were destroyed in the wake of development projects that built expansive asphalt parking lots and that baked in the sun.
Research documented the urban heat-load component of global warming, but no relief was possible in those lots, since no place had been made for new trees.
Many communities still build this way, but in Alachua County, most builders, planners, engineers, landscape architects, and site-work contractors have learned to value and protect trees. Places for new trees are now inherent in every design.
Gainesville has become this kind of community because in the early 1980s, city staff made it its mission.
Gene Francis, Carolyn Morgan and Ralph Hilliard - long-time city planners - framed revisions to the ordinances that govern land development so parking lot landscaping and protection of existing trees would be required.
Noel Lake and Bob Simons, each of whom have served on the Tree Advisory Board for most of these past 20 years, wrote many of the regulations that, taken collectively, constitute Gainesville's tree ordinance. They have volunteered their time and expertise in acts of generosity that have resulted in the urban forest you see today.
Over time, the ordinances have been enhanced. As we noticed that finished stormwater retention basins looked like rectangular sod prisons, the collective aesthetic railed at the ugliness. The codes were changed; now tree-planting is required.
In the next few months, the City Commission will adopt changes that govern wetlands and drainage basins, and the new requirements will include the establishment of native shrubs and perennials to enhance the aesthetic and wildlife support qualities.
Because the water in drainage management structures is often from parking lot runoff, some argue the landscaping should repel wildlife. I disagree.
Organisms find ecosystem niches. Even ugly basins with no vegetation have wildlife, so why not try to make stormwater ponds as clean and beautiful as possible?
By providing varying layers of vegetation, a complexity of niches is available to shelter and feed songbirds and small animals.
The environmental conditions aren't pristine, but we're all adapting to living on a planet with compromised air and water qualities. We wish it were otherwise, but it beats not living at all.
The same logic argues for a place for the animals in our urban forest.
Nurturing the urban forest has been the Gainesville way. We are a community that loves Earth. Not every one of us in the same way, but for the most part, people speak positively about the trees.
Fifteen years ago, when I started to enforce the ordinance framework, site-work contractors were ignorant of tree barricades. Now tree protection is part of their work ethic.
I was on a job not long ago where the tree barricades were great. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the construction drawings and found they had inadvertently been left off the demolition/grading/paving plan.
Protecting trees has become the way we live. The contractor, a local firm, had gone ahead and put them up anyway.
Of course, we see great losses of trees. Forests that had grown up in areas that were agricultural fields 50 years ago are routinely mowed down. I miss these forests and the birds and animals that took refuge there. However, considering the trees only, the replacements are better.
Yes, they are small, but they represent a wide variety of strong species. Elms, ash, magnolias, river birch, bald cypress, maples and a diversity of oaks have replaced re-growth forests dominated by weak species like laurel and water oak, loblolly pine and sweetgum.
The giants of a climax forest are planted. Important seed sources are introduced.
So, this Arbor Day, we should be grateful for the progress 20 years has brought. And we should be grateful to each other. Arguments over development projects will continue, as they should.
To "develop" connotes improvement, and as a people, we want to be sure that new construction adds to the value of the community.
But this is a day to put aside arguments and look at the urban forest: the diversity of trees planted in our parking lots and along our streets, the trees we have planted in our yards, the large trees we have protected that live on and shelter us.
In scientific studies after Hurricane Andrew, researchers found the majority of homes damaged by trees had no trees!
Where there were trees, they interrupted the flight of uprooted trees caught in the vortex. Strong trees that sheltered homes from the sun sheltered again as the winds threw missiles to earth.
We have been transforming our community. On Arbor Day, we should look at trees and thank them for their beauty, for generating the oxygen, for providing food and resources.
And this Arbor Day, after taking a moment to thank the trees, we should take another moment to listen. They whisper their thanks to us, too, for being a community that made a place for them.
Meg Niederhofer is the city of Gainesville's arborist and can be contacted at Arborist@ci.gainesville.fl.us or 334-2171.

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