Cedar Rapids gearing up to fully launch ReLeaf initiative after derecho

Renowned city planner identifies 'more ambitious' policies to replenish trees

A tree debris removal truck is unloaded Thursday at a collection site along Sixth Street NW in Cedar Rapids as cleanup f
A tree debris removal truck is unloaded Thursday at a collection site along Sixth Street NW in Cedar Rapids as cleanup from the Aug. 10 derecho continues. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The city could enact the bolder policies of some other communities to fully commit to increasing its tree canopy after so many trees were downed in the Aug. 10 derecho, renowned city planner Jeff Speck said Thursday.

In a presentation during a daylong “Our Woodland Legacy Symposium” by local nonprofit Trees Forever, Speck — who’s helping craft the city’s plan for its multimillion-dollar ReLeaf initiative to replenish its lost tree canopy — said Cedar Rapids policies “are not as ambitious as they could be regarding keeping the trees we have” and setting requirements for things like new subdivisions and office parks.

Some communities that hope to really increase their tree canopy may, for example, protect every public and private tree to a certain minimum caliber, Speck said. Other cities require streets be built with a tree every 30 to 40 feet.

“These are rules that cities that really wish to increase their canopy choose collectively to enforce,” Speck said. “So we need to have an approval mechanism which I think is at arm’s length from the green lighting of this plan, but we will not shy away from sharing and advocating for those policy best practices that the city, we hope, will consider very seriously.”

Communities can identify a number of principles to guide the plan, such as equity, resiliency, beauty and character, public input and stewardship, Speck said. The city and other experts will consider a number of such principles and weigh priorities soon as they gear up to fully launch the ReLeaf initiative.

Trees Forever will work with Speck and local landscape architecture firm Confluence to develop the ReLeaf plan.

Cedar Rapids plans to recruit a full-time ReLeaf project manager in 2021 in the Parks and Recreation Department to help manage the initiative and serve as a liaison with Trees Forever.


The effort will begin with a 10-month, four-phase process to form a plan to guide city officials and other collaborators in replanting, said Patrick Alvord, the principal of Confluence.

The city has lost at least 65 percent of its tree canopy in the derecho, Mayor Brad Hart said, “yet this community has cleaned up and we’re anxious to start replanting our woodlands.”

It’s important to do so given Cedar Rapids’ designation as a Tree City USA, he added.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the city has committed $1 million annually for up to 10 years to the initiative. Trees Forever is helping with fundraising efforts.

“The entire City Council and our staff have always talked about planting more trees and supporting trees in our city, and so Aug. 10 was absolutely devastating for our community, and the look of our city in many ways has changed,” Pomeranz said. “We know that’s temporary but seeing the destruction the derecho has caused is something that has touched all of us.”

The first phase will take approximately two months — collecting data, taking an inventory of the city’s trees, conducting research and doing preliminary engagement with the public, Alvord said.

That data is largely already available as the city already maintained an inventory of trees on its public lands and rights of way since before the derecho. And for Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement purposes, crews will take stock of the trees downed in the storm’s hurricane-force winds and those that certified arborists identified as needing to be removed after sustaining damage.

Phase two dedicates about three months to engagement, analysis and identifying priorities. This will include a public kickoff, stakeholder meetings and other public events and discussion about replanting trees lost in city parks.

Finally, those working on the initiative expect to take three months to draft the plan and review it before moving to the fourth phase of preparing the final plan and presenting it to the public.


Trees Forever Chief Executive Officer Shannon Ramsay said cities such as Calgary, in Alberta in Canada, and Galveston, Texas, could provide models for how to proceed after facing a large amount of tree loss.

Some replanting plans also incorporate private lands and not only public spaces, she said.

“Trees Forever’s voice in this plan is going to be pretty heavily focused on volunteer engagement, neighborhood engagement … to be sure that we’re doing everything we can to engage everyone and offer lots of training,” Ramsay said.

Despite the destruction the derecho caused, Pomeranz said it has unified the city around the goal of replanting across Cedar Rapids.

“We’re going to need the support of the entire city to bring back this beautiful canopy, to bring back the trees that have made Cedar Rapids so special,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8494;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.