The last thing anyone wants to do on the third day of 90-degree weather is drag out a shovel and start digging a hole. But in light of this weather — and what’s happening to our planet — planting trees should be foremost on our minds.
Last fall the state announced an expansion of its Greening the Gateway Cities initiative, adding four cities including Salem to a list of areas involved in the tree-planting program, along with $370,000 worth of new grants. Extending the canopy maybe didn’t feel like an urgent need on the North Shore on Nov. 23, the day Gov. Charlie Baker’s office announced the news, when the high was 58 degrees. Yesterday, when there wasn’t much break from the sun and temperatures were forecast to reach 93 degrees, was a different story.
The swelter is as visceral evidence as can be of the importance of trees, as well as the real disadvantages faced by people who live in areas without them. It’s also a good reminder of the value of Greening the Gateway Cities and programs like it that aim to extend shade; reduce energy costs; take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere; make urban areas more climate resilient; and generally make days like the past few more bearable.
Many communities in Massachusetts have active committees engaged in tree-planting. Greening the Gateway Cities is a statewide project that finds its roots, if you will, in the arboreal disaster of the Asian longhorned beetle infestation in Worcester, which by fall of 2014 had forced the removal of more than 34,000 trees, according to the Telegram & Gazette. The loss was most felt in densely developed areas with lots of unshaded concrete and asphalt. In some parts of the city denuded by the beetle, summertime electric use spiked by more than 40%, according to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.
At least 30,000 new trees have been planted in Worcester to eventually take the place of the ones that were removed. Greening the Gateway Cities is working to spread the green, one tree at a time, in 18 other cities including Lawrence, Haverhill and now Salem.
“It’s exciting to plant a lot of young trees, but you have to take the long view of this,” says Tennis Lilly, who manages the project in Lawrence with Eric Lundquist for Groundwork Lawrence. They also help coordinate the program in Haverhill. “We’re really investing for 20 or 30 years from now — or even longer,” Lilly says.
In Lawrence, the project so far has planted 2,364 trees in a 650-acre area of the city identified as most in need of canopy. A large number of those trees were planted after homeowners raised their hands and agreed to nurture young trees.
Each tree has real value — $177, according to a report cited by Lily. That’s the estimated worth of one tree’s capacity to capture and store carbon dioxide, soak up stormwater and remove other pollutants from the air, shave energy because of their expansive shade, and improve aesthetics and property values. By that calculus all of the trees planted by the project in Lawrence, once it reaches its goal of 2,800 trees, will be worth nearly $500,000.
That’s a good deal anywhere, but it’s especially in “heat islands” where an overabundance of paved surfaces trap heat and release it even after sundown. Those areas tend to be urban and experience higher temperatures than leafy suburban communities. Their residents tend to be immigrants or minorities living on limited incomes. And Lilly points to research that connects the way those communities appear today — with relatively few trees and little vegetation — to land-use policies of the past connected to redlining and lack of investment. “It’s not unique to Lawrence or Haverhill, this is nationwide,” says Lilly.
In its corner of the world, Groundwork Lawrence isn’t just planting trees to create a balm for heat islands. Its Climate Safe Neighborhoods program also works to build new parks, rehab old parks and promote urban gardens, among other efforts.
Anyone who spent a moment outside these past few days can attest to the relief found beneath a Sweetgum, Bur Oak or American Elm. And if there’s anything to be gained from this heat wave, it’s the knowledge that we need the shade of many, many more trees.
For more about Greening the Gateway Cities and to learn if you’re eligible for a free tree, visitwww.maurbancanopy.org.