What Is Akron’s Urban Tree Canopy, and How Does it Grow?

An Introduction to Plans and Progress

Words by Sophie Franchi

It’s Spring in the Midwest now, so most of the trees lining the streets of Akron are in full bloom. The wind is brisk, and any ray of sunshine is a welcome sight. But remember for a moment what it feels like to walk to your local coffee shop or convenience store in mid-August under the blazing sun, and how welcome the shade of a big tree along the path can feel when the sidewalk is baking.

We all know that 90 percent humidity on a 90-degree day feels awful, but it’s actually dangerous as well. According to the National Weather Service, “the heat index, also known as the apparent temperature, is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature.” As the humidity increases, the body’s ability to perspire to cool down decreases, which can lead to heat disorders like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, trees and vegetation provide shade that can lower surface temperatures by 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The evapotranspiration process of trees and other vegetation, especially when combined with shading, can help reduce summer temperatures by two to nine degrees Fahrenheit, which can be enough to bring the heat index down into a safer zone for people to be outside.

Reducing the heat index is just one of many benefits that trees provide. Trees also improve air quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy use. They reduce erosion and pavement maintenance. They enhance stormwater management and improve water quality. They provide wildlife habitats and reduce noise. They improve public health by reducing asthma rates and decreasing UV-8 exposure. They also increase property values.

Plus, trees look a lot nicer than empty lots and tree lawns surrounded by concrete and asphalt. Imagine fall in the Midwest without a blazing canopy of yellows, oranges, and reds, or spring without the blossoming cherry or budding maple! For many residential areas in Akron where the UTC is lacking, that is the unfortunate reality. Neighborhoods with fewer trees have higher rates of asthma, more air pollution, higher surface temperatures, more stormwater runoff leading to flooding and erosion, lower property values, and higher rates of crime.

The Urban Tree Canopy (UTC) in Akron, Ohio became an area of focus for the greater Akron community in November of 2013, when Plan-It Geo was commissioned to perform “An Assessment of Urban Tree Canopy in Akron, Ohio” for the City of Akron, Akron Engineering Bureau, Akron Parks Maintenance Division, and GreenPrint Akron. Funding for the study was provided by the USDA Forest Service through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Project Clean Lake grant. This project presented data on the extent of Urban Tree Canopy (UTC) across the City of Akron, provided analysis of Possible Planting Areas (PPA) and areas unsuitable for planting, detailed the ecosystem services provided by Akron’s UTC, and recommended objectives and goals for support and facilitation of future tree planting and canopy preservation.

In 2016, the City of Akron under the administration of Mayor Dan Horrigan took the first big step towards preserving and growing Akron’s UTC when they released the “Master Tree Planting Plan.” The mission for this plan is “to maximize the economic, environmental, and social benefits of a sustainable Urban Forest for the residents of Akron, Ohio” (p. 2) The plan sets forth goals necessary to accomplish this mission, followed by supporting strategies for tree planting, maintenance, and removal, as well as community education. Action items for carrying out the plan’s mission include specifications and implementation recommendations for the following: an inventory of trees and planting sites; a master planting design; annual tree risk assessments; community education and activities; protection for heritage trees and heritage tree corridors; a memorial tree planting program; tree maintenance; and a plan for meeting Akron’s UTC goals.

While the “Master Tree Planting Plan” is available to the public on the City of Akron’s website, the Appendices mentioned throughout the plan have not yet been posted to the website. These Appendices are purported to contain a wealth of detailed information and recommendations crucial to the implementation of each Action specified in the plan.

Then in 2020, the City of Akron released the “2020 State of the Canopy Report” prepared by Davey Resource Group, Inc. (DRG). This report used aerial imagery captured in 2018 to assess Akron’s UTC in comparison with the 2013 assessment by Plan-It Geo, which used imagery from 2011. The report details the results of this analysis, which DRG used in conjunction with other community data to develop a prioritized planting plan to address threats to the canopy caused by infestation, the combined sewer overflow (CSO) project, and other infrastructure improvements. The report also includes possible scenarios for future tree planting based on goals established by the City of Akron. The report findings could potentially be leveraged to establish private partnerships with organizations in Akron’s nonprofit and business sectors that could greatly impact canopy growth.

Additionally, the City of Akron has formed a Tree Commission, whose mission is to support the City of Akron in managing our tree canopy to provide a safe, healthy, and sustainable urban forest. The Tree Commission assembled for the first time in December 2021. As of January 2023, the members of the Tree Commission are The City of Akron Deputy Director of Public Service – Operations, James Aitkin; Akron City Council Clerk of Council, Sara Biviano; Akron City Council Vice President, Jeff Fusco; Master Gardeners of Summit County Board President, Sarah Vradenburg; and North Hill Community House Vice President and Executive Program Director, Patricia Wyatt. City Arborist Jon Malish attends the meetings and provides guidance as needed.

The Tree Commission meets virtually on the third Tuesday of every month at 1:30pm to discuss items of importance regarding the City of Akron’s trees, including the UTC and the execution of the “Master Tree Planting Plan.” The meetings are aired live and recorded for future reference, viewable by the public at akronohio.gov/youtube. The first recorded meeting took place on January 11, 2022. Anyone interested in contacting the Tree Commission can email treecommission@akronohio.gov.

Tree Commission’s agenda includes planning for future tree plantings, organizing public awareness and education on the benefits of the UTC, and hearing appeals from citizens protesting tree plantings on tree lawns in residential neighborhoods.

Currently, the Tree Commission is wrapping up a logo contest that tasked Firestone High School students with designing a logo for the Commission. The winner will receive $100 and a proclamation from Mayor Dan Horrigan.

The Tree Commission is also planning a 2023 Arbor Day celebration on April 28, 2023, at 10am at Firestone High School. The City of Akron will plant a tree on school property to observe Arbor Day and in doing so will meet the final requirement for formal designation as a Tree City as part of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program. To meet the requirements for this inaugural designation as a Tree City, the City of Akron has maintained a tree board or department (the Tree Commission), implemented a public tree care ordinance, budgeted at least $2 per capita toward a community forestry program, and observed Arbor Day with a celebration and proclamation.

Stay tuned for future coverage on the subject of Akron’s UTC and the City’s planting plans, which will include the current status of goals and objectives set forth in each of the aforementioned documents, opportunities for community and private sector involvement, and reporting on the Akron Tree Commission’s progress to date and upcoming plans.

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