TreePhilly was only days away from announcing big plans — 23 tree giveaway events — when they were hit with news of Philly’s citywide COVID-19 control measures. So, they immediately began devising an alternative plan.
“Early on in quarantine, our first step was to call all of our community partners to check in: How their community members were holding up, what support they might be looking for and if trees were still on their mind,” says Jack Braunstein, manager of the program.
TreePhilly, an urban forestry program in partnership with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the Fairmount Park Conservancy, and 36 community organizations, and sponsored by TD Bank, reached out to other similar programs around the country to see how they were safely adapting their practices. They decided to offer door-to-door delivery for residents without vehicles and those in high-risk COVID-19 demographics. They also decided to offer a contactless drive-thru tree pickup.
“Pre-existing challenges with community violence, chronic stress and mental health problems have only gotten harder for our neighbors around the city and building a nurturing neighborhood tree canopy is an important piece of the puzzle for dealing with those persistent issues,” says Braunstein.
A tree canopy is essential to the health of any urban environment. A recent study published in The Lancet shows that growing Philly’s tree canopy to 30 percent could prevent hundreds of premature deaths, especially in poor neighborhoods. That’s the goal of Greenworks, the City of Philadelphia’s sustainability program, which aims to hit that milestone by 2025. It’ll be an uphill battle: Due to clearing for new construction and landowner removal, Philly lost 6 percent of its total tree canopy between 2008 and 2018, equivalent to about 1,000 football fields worth.
TreePhilly has given away more than 25,000 trees since 2012 with the goal of establishing a thriving tree canopy in every neighborhood. Along with the health benefits of purer air and water, healthy tree canopies cool neighborhoods with their shade and improve residents’ mental and physical health, according to a TreePhilly assessment, benefits which can also contribute to improving social cohesion and reducing crime.
The program offers free yard trees to all Philly residents, but prioritizes areas with historical patterns of environmental injustice, says Braunstein, ensuring they have equitable access to trees. Poor neighborhoods and communities of color often suffer more from environmental hazards such as extreme heat and air pollution in Philadelphia, he adds.
Each season, 10 different species of shade, fruit and flowering trees are offered through TreePhilly. This year’s offerings include large shade trees like the black gum and bald cypress, and smaller ornamental trees such as the sweetbay magnolia and American smoketree. Available fruit trees include elderberry, Santa Rosa plum, paw paw and Asian pear. The program helps residents choose an appropriate tree for their property, dependent on available space for roots and branches, and amount of sun. If residents don’t have the yard space, the program also offers street trees.
Or, through the Philadelphia Water Department’s RainCheck program, Philly residents can apply to “create” a yard. It’s an affordable program that helps property owners to become more stormwater management friendly, and may involve removal of concrete and impermeable spaces, and replacement with a porous surface. Currently, the program is not accepting new applicants until the new year, due to COVID-related budget cuts, but those who participated in a workshop before the pandemic can still request an assessment or consultation for green stormwater infrastructure.
“Although we are working with limited funds, we are optimistic that we can continue to educate Philadelphia residents about the importance of managing stormwater runoff at a residential level,” says Laura Copeland, public information officer from the Philadelphia Water Department.
The fall tree giveaway season is currently in progress and has been going well, says Braunstein. Events are filling up and hundreds of residents have already collected and planted their trees and many more are signed up to do so.
“It’s been really rewarding to drive around and deliver trees to people’s homes all over Philly. Seeing the spaces these trees will eventually fill up and the people in every corner of the city who can’t wait to plant them is a beautiful experience,” says Braunstein.
This story is a part of our Broke in Philly mini-series, the Hidden Environmental Costs of COVID-19, a partnership between Green Philly and Next City. Broke in Philly is a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Next City is one of more than 20 news organizations in the collective. Follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Claire Marie Porter was Next City’s INN/Columbia Journalism School intern for Fall 2020. She is a Pennsylvania-based journalist who writes about health, science, and environmental justice, and her work can be found in The Washington Post, Grid Magazine, WIRED and other publications.