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Cedar Rapids City Council to adopt $37 million ReLeaf plan to recover from ‘devastating’ derecho tree loss
Plan guides public replanting, offers tips for private landowners, addresses supply and funding challenges
CEDAR RAPIDS — Looking to craft the premier U.S. urban forestry model that will guide Cedar Rapids’ recovery from devastating tree loss, the city and nonprofit Trees Forever have unveiled their ambitious 10-year plan to replenish trees downed here by the 2020 derecho’s ferocious winds.
The $37 million ReLeaf plan, which the Cedar Rapids City Council is slated to adopt Tuesday, envisions trees as a tool to remedy social inequities, advance climate adaptation goals, enhance city design and strengthen community bonds through immediate replanting efforts and long-term policy changes that would result in a tree canopy more vibrant than the pre-derecho days.
It outlines the principles and rules governing reforestation in public parks and streets, includes guidance for landowners to replant their properties and addresses challenges officials must contend with to carry out the massive undertaking. Renowned city planner Jeff Speck and local landscape architecture firm Confluence worked with ReLeaf partners on the plan.
Full of graphics, illustrations and text to lay out the replanting endeavor, the plan offers a ReLeaf Tree List of native species that thrive here as its core resource. The entire plan, tree recommendations, tips for how to help and interactive maps showing the placement and priority ranking of public trees will be available at CityofCR.com/ReLeaf.
How does the ReLeaf Tree List work?
It groups trees by desirability, identifying them as Superior (native trees that offer the maximum environmental benefits), Allowed (trees that aren’t as beneficial for the food web, but will fill the canopy) and Contingent (those that should only be planted when there is no other option, as they are small enough so as not to disrupt transmission wires). This resource will guide public tree replanting but also can be used by private landowners to select trees.
Available in printed magazine and online formats, and with highlights to come in the city’s OurCR magazine in the spring, the plan is intended to be shared with everyone from residents choosing trees for their yards to city Parks and Recreation staff.
“We need to have that commitment that we're coming back better,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said. “We had a devastating loss. No one in the history of the United States has ever sustained a plan like this.”
The plan serves as an instruction manual and a call to action to enhance Cedar Rapids as a Tree City USA, Pomeranz said, and ensure residents reap the benefits of trees for generations.
“This is a big job that is going to require lots of work by surely the city government, but really the entire community to be successful,” Pomeranz said.
The plan covers the basics of urban forestry, identifying practices that guide tree planting in cities in a way that fosters a better habitat amid cityscapes. Most of the tree loss from the derecho was on private land, but the city has jurisdiction over the 42,502 public trees to be planted — 34,227 street trees and 8,275 park trees.
As replanting occurs, the plan advises the city follow a principle to ensure species diversity to lessen the risk of blight, mandating that it plant no more than 10 percent of any one species, no more than 20 percent of one genus and no more than 30 percent of any one family of trees in blocks of uniformity.
For street trees, the plan calls attention to three types in particular: Residential streets without trees, downtown streets with select “soft targets” that offer an opportunity for low-cost planting or for sidewalks to be shaded as they are rebuilt and “Gateway Corridors,” or streets that are rife with green space and are in highly visible, frequently traveled spaces.
To see when right of way trees will arrive to your street, the city will use data available through a GIS program to develop an interactive map. That way, residents can search their street address to learn which year replanting will take place outside their homes — similar to what Cedar Rapids already does for Paving for Progress street repairs. Residents who wish not to wait can plant street trees after obtaining a permit from the city and by selecting a species from the ReLeaf Tree List.
The order of priority for replanting in streets and parks is determined by formulas that consider tree equity scores to center replanting for vulnerable populations, among other factors.
For parks, the plan includes designs for 38 of the 97 city parks, with the rest relying on the park planting formula. The plan envisions parks as an opportunity to create an edible landscape in some instances. In food deserts, trees that produce fruits and nuts can be planted and community gardens can be created to generate more healthy food options.
Overall, parks should be replanted mostly in groups with young trees and especially seedlings. Under the plan, the city should maintain a database of park trees to track tree care, line existing paths with trees and work to eradicate invasive species in woodlands and “unimproved” park areas.
The plan recognizes that encouraging private landowners to replant trees is key to successfully reforesting Cedar Rapids.
Although private donors have supported tree adoptions, including the Monarch Research Project’s Planting Forward initiative, more work is needed to fully restore tree canopy in these areas.
It notes benefits of canopies such as reduced summer cooling and winter heating costs, as well as other benefits including reduced crime and improved mental health.
Large entities such as colleges and universities, school districts, hospitals, golf clubs, cemeteries and major corporations collectively own and manage over 8 percent of Cedar Rapids’ land, and an equal if not greater percentage of its trees. These entities can “lead by example” to inspire smaller players, the plan states.
Under the plan, a Trees Forever grant fund will support replanting of public schoolyards and others as fundraising allows, including cemeteries and religious campuses.
To help institutionalize tree planting, the plan advises city staff to bring a number of proposed policy changes to the council that essentially require more trees be planted during development.
The zoning ordinance should be modified to require large-species trees be planted 30 feet apart instead of the current rule of 40 feet, and small-species trees planted under utilities should be placed a minimum of 20 feet apart. The ordinance also should require a doubling of trees replaced when canopy is destroyed for development, and parking lot tree requirements should promote more trees in a way that eases the burden of snowplowing.
Noting that trees planted by developers to meet site requirements die at a higher rate than those planted by city staff or contractors, the plan asks that the city require developers to buy and plant only trees with two-year survival warranties. Staff also should create a standardized process of identifying properties that are non-compliant with their site plans’ tree requirements.
To execute the plan, the city will need funding, labor and supply for the next decade.
Cedar Rapids already has committed $1 million a year for 10 years to the effort, plus funds for watering the newly planted trees. Some private sector donors have contributed over $1 million as well. That still leaves a gap of more than $20 million, which will require grants and more fundraising.
“Much will depend on the support we get from the private sector in the community,” Pomeranz said. “This is going to be a community effort. We are putting the taxpayer dollars first, but we're going to need a lot of help.”
The plan makes a point to encourage more volunteers to become trained “TreeKeepers” or otherwise get involved with tree planting and care. Residents will need some knowledge — particularly about the importance of native species — to revive the canopy.
While replanting thousands of trees will take a massive amount of money and some know-how, according to the plan, the limiting factor is more likely to be plant material: It asks, “Can enough trees be found for this plan to achieve its goals?”
Proposed solutions include boosting the capacity of regional nurseries, communicating the future demand for the ReLeaf native species and effectively distributing low-cost seedlings, particularly in areas such as parks and “unimproved” natural areas, along trails and in suburban yards.
“People think that we're planting trees for 20 years from now, and what I learned through this process is our city will look different in five years,” Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler said. “But you don't have to think that this is really planting for the next generation. This is planting for today. And if you plant a tree today, you will see the effects in five and 10 years. You don't have to wait a lifetime to see a change in the community.”
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