116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The team charged with replenishing the tree canopy that Cedar Rapids lost in the 2020 derecho will release a plan in January that details where to plant over 42,000 trees on public land in a 10-year span for an estimated $37 million, and helps guide landowners on how to contribute to the reforestation.
The plan, born from a partnership between the city of Cedar Rapids, nonprofit Trees Forever, renowned city planner Jeff Speck and landscape architecture firm Confluence, lays out a path to equitably replant trees lost in the storm, the costliest thunderstorm in U.S. history, and diversify the canopy with native species. Officials laud it as a groundbreaking effort with the potential to offer an urban forest model to other communities.
Sharing highlights of the plan Thursday at Trees Forever’s annual symposium at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, Speck said he is convinced this is the single largest urban storm tree disaster in modern American history. The derecho was an “unprecedented event that requires an unprecedented response,” he said.
“This is a plan that we think, we hope, we expect will reach far beyond Cedar Rapids, and not just because many other cities are going to be experiencing similarly devastating storm events as global warming increases, but because it is a collection of best practices that we feel are relevant to most of the country,” he said.
After the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho, Mayor Brad Hart said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz recognized the immediate need to replenish the tree canopy after a loss of about 669,000 trees. The trees lost typically were mature and contributed to a larger share of the overall canopy, effectively wiping out about two-thirds of it.
“I firmly believe that the challenges we have faced over the last two years have created a renewed appreciation of what trees contribute to the quality of our lives,” said Hart, who leaves office in January but will stay on the ReLeaf private fundraising campaign committee. “We are committed to working together to bring back our tree canopy bigger and better than before. It will take time and effort of course, but I’m confident that working together, we will get there.”
The ReLeaf Cedar Rapids team set the process in motion to gather input and the latest scientific expertise to fuel the plan’s development around a set of principles surrounding people, planet and plant, as well as best practices, to form eight “ReLeaf rules.”
“If you plant the right trees, in addition to the actually very complex tasks of budgeting and distributing the trees over 10 years, the plan recognizes that the trees we choose and the places we put them, and even the order in which we plant them, can be done well or badly in a way that will have better or worse outcomes,” Speck told The Gazette.
Implementation also meets the goals of the city’s recently adopted Community Climate Action Plan, which calls for adoption of the ReLeaf plan to support vulnerable neighborhoods with air and heat pollution challenges. It cites the benefits of improving mental health and air quality, reducing energy costs, enhancing natural habitat and boosting jobs available in forestry. Replanting trees ranked as residents’ top priority in survey efforts.
The plan includes detailed designs for 38 parks identified by Cedar Rapids as most in need of a landscape architect. Of the 42,502 public trees to be planted, the plan covers the planting of 34,227 street trees and 8,275 park trees.
Speck said the plan favors planting smaller trees and particularly seedlings in city parks or along trails, as they are cheaper and better thrive when their root systems are not moved later on.
The team came up with a formula to outline how to plant street trees in order of priority, factoring in the derecho loss, a tree equity score, pedestrian infrastructure demand, roadway classification and available vacant land. This coincides with city plans and data on social vulnerability from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For parks, the formula considers the tree equity score, park classification and percent of the population under 18.
Policy changes have also been recommended to members of the City Council to better foster reforestation, such as reducing the space required between trees and requiring more trees to be replaced when they are removed for development.
ReLeaf implementation also creates a “Neighborwoods” program, where residents may petition the city for trees in neighborhoods that were built around the 1980s when street tree planting was not required. If 50 percent of the neighbors decide they want street trees in the right of way, the city will be allowed to plant there.
About 85 percent of Cedar Rapids land is privately owned, and about 570,000 of the trees lost were estimated to have been on private property. The ReLeaf team is counting on community buy-in to bring the canopy back, and has included a yard tree plan for individual owners and an institutional tree plan for large owners.
The plan for yard trees details ways Trees Forever can help replant, such as organizing tree adoptions to eliminate cost barriers for those looking to replant with partners such as the Monarch Research Project’s Planting Forward initiative. It also details deploying volunteers who can help plant trees.
Additionally, the plan provides a tree list as a guide to help landowners identify the best tree for their needs, showing the right place for each tree and information about growth rate, canopy shape and which trees produce flowers, fall color or edible fruit.
Diagrams also advise landowners on how to have more eco-friendly yards.
For large landowners — such as school districts, private schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and golf clubs — the plan includes strategies for encouraging and assisting these entities, and includes establishing a matching funds pool for more needy landowners such as cemeteries.
“It's an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Trees Forever Executive Director Kiley Miller said.
Cedar Rapids has committed at least $10 million so far — $1 million annually for 10 years — to the ReLeaf effort as well as funds for watering newly planted trees.
Trees Forever founder Shannon Ramsay said the campaign committee has so far secured $1.5 million in private funds. Gifts announced have come from the Alliant Energy Foundation, Collins Aerospace, AEGON Transamerica Foundation and ITC Midwest.
“We believe that we can pull it off,” Ramsay said. To fill the funding gap, the ReLeaf team is eyeing potential federal funding and grant opportunities, including a share of the $2.5 billion called for in the Democrats’ proposed recreation bill, included in the federal Build Back Better Act.
Speck said the plan came and the budget followed.
Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler compared this with the city spending over $30 million over the last five or so years to bring facilities, sidewalks and programs into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — it's work that has to be done, and it’s the right thing to do.
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