Newton street tree plans keep sustainability, climate change in mind

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Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, May 2017
Volunteers help during last spring's tree planting in Newton​As Newton works to replace a street tree population cut almost in half since it peaked in the late 1970s, the city is keeping a focus on the effects of climate change and sustainability when making decisions about what species to plant and where.
The roughly two-year-old planting program takes into account studies, industry information, and lessons learned from other communities when identifying tree species best suited for each location around the city, according to Marc Welch, the city’s urban forestry director.
The goal is to bring the number of street trees in Newton back to between 30,000 and 35,000 by 2030 – up from the current 20,000 or so.
The city takes an inventory every few years, followed up with a count of every available planting location, resulting in a percentage of need for each area that prioritizes certain locations.
“We focus on those areas with the highest amount of loss, and then we also work with our DPW when they’re doing roadwork projects and make a point of planting trees so it’s a complete project,” Welch said. “Then on top of that we have typical service requests.”
Availability at nurseries and the city’s own experience with a particular species also figure into the city’s plans.
“The goal … is to have a broad diversity,” Welch said.
The city is trying to keep the proportion of any one tree species down in the 10 percent range, he said.
“We went out and looked at all the species that work in our setting,” he said. “Any good planting season, you have anywhere from 12 to 20 different varieties that we’ll plant.”
Diversity is an increasing focus for cities and towns, Welch said, because it provides resilience to changing climate conditions.
Since the 1970s, many communities planted fast-growing Norway maples, which were easy to find at nurseries and had good survival rates. (The species still accounts for close to 80 percent of Newton’s street trees, Welch said.) If an insect or disease affecting Norway maples comes to the region, however, it could wipe out most municipal trees, a problem that Welch said arose with the maple trees devastated in Worcester by the Asian Longhorned Beetle.
Norway maples are also now considered an invasive species, so Massachusetts banned them in 2009.
Most of Newton’s tree canopy loss since the 1970s can be attributed to age, Welch said.
After Proposition 2 ½ passed in 1980, many municipal tree planting programs, including Newton’s, were drastically curtailed, he said. Tree planting and care “became very complaint-driven.” From about 1990 through 2015, the city didn’t have a planting program.
Tree planting generally doesn’t leap to the top of municipal priority lists, Welch said. He credited Newton’s newly reinvigorated tree planting program, which began in 2015, to both Mayor Setti Warren’s analytical approach to municipal governance and the Newton Tree Conservancy, a fairly young volunteer group that works with Welch’s office to organize plantings.
Communities that do not currently have a tree management program could reach out to the Massachusetts Tree Wardens and Forestry Association, which offers training as well as networking with people managing trees in cities and towns across the state, Welch said. He also advised tapping into advocacy groups and constituents who are interested in trees and can help generate data and possibly assist with planting.
“For us counting each tree and planting spot,” Welch said, “that’s a large task. We have 300 miles of roads. But for a smaller community, it’s not too bad and it doesn’t have to be fancy. You can be as detailed as you want with digital mapping and software packages, but you can also do it on paper.”
For more information, contact Newton Urban Forestry Director Marc Welch at (617) 796-1500.