Off the Grid: A tree is a measure of wealth

Off the Grid: A tree is a measure of wealth

If you want to know what neighborhoods in any city are the most wealthy and healthy, simply count the trees.

Few of us probably equate shade with the number of correlated benefits it has, yet in the face of climate change and wealth disparity, it has come to symbolize affluence.

The Lands Council and the City of Spokane’s Urban Forestry department are working to make trees an equitable symbol of hope and sustainability through the SpoCanopy project.

Now in it’s third year, the project is one so well-research, well-planned, and well-executed, it may become a template for other cities in the future. With the goal of “equitably increasing urban canopy by planting street trees in low canopy, low-income neighborhoods,” the project aims to achieve a 30% canopy in the city by 2030.

While neighborhoods like Manito-Cannon Hill have nearly 40% coverage, others like Shiloh Hills have 11.2% coverage. The city on a whole has about 21% tree canopy coverage.

Yet tree canopies ought not be a luxury, because they provide essential functions to ecosystems, especially within the urban environment, particularly those most affected by climate change.

Some facts from the Nature Conservancy that might have you out planting soon:

A single grown tree canopy can reduce fine particle pollutants by a third in a 300-yard radius. Canopy coverage can reduce city street temperatures by 2-4 degrees. Increased canopy coverage is associated with increased property values and increased habitat for pollinators. It is also associated with a reduced risk of obesity, cardiac disease, strokes, asthma and pollutants in water drainage (essential to a city supplied by aquifers).

And for decades , studies have shown the mental health benefits of trees extend beyond a reduction in stress, depression and anxiety. They improve our overall sense of well-being.

The SpoCanopy project uses extensive GIS mapping to understand each neighborhood’s complexities and determine those with greatest priority for tree planting. This year, they have around 200 trees designated to be planted in west central and northeast neighborhoods where the coverage is lowest, and not surprisingly, so is the income.

But in those neighborhoods, once a tree is planted, who bears the cost and burden of caring for that tree in the future?

“The average annual expense of watering a new tree is about 12 dollars,” said Justyce Brandt, the Restoration Coordinator at The Lands Council.

Yet a lot of steps need to take place before the watering of a new transplant.

These trees are generally 3-5 years old and are carefully selected for the particular qualities desired: full canopies, low maintenance and roots that grow down instead of around (which can damage sidewalks, creating accessibility issues and reparation expenses). Before planting begins, volunteers at The Lands Council begin educating neighborhoods with a canvasing campaign to determine who is interested in having a tree and able to care for its temporary additional watering needs (typically two to three gallons per week in the warmer months for the first two years).

Once a household has approved of planting, the volunteers are trained through demonstration by the qualified arborists in the Urban Forestry department on just how to unfurl the roots of the new tree, place it in the newly dug hole, mulch and water it, then secure it with soil. Proper planting is one of the essential components of the tree’s continued growth and vitality.

Of the 200 trees they planted last year, nearly 90% survived and are thriving. The organizers are increasing their stewardship outreach to assess the health of newly planted trees, engage neighbors in watering them or creating watering crews, and having interns help with some of the formative pruning. The Tree Stewardship Intern Program also assesses and provides reports on the continuing health of trees so the project can use the information to continually improve its planting, care, and outreach practices.

This year, the planting will take place on April 25, 26 and 27 and volunteers can sign up online at The large trees require many hands to dig and plant, particularly in the rockier soil of some of those areas.

In time, the hope is to provide a lush and rich canopy that serves the city of Spokane equitably, offering shade to all neighborhoods, cleaner air, cooler temperatures, cleaner water and the health-improving endorphins that green spaces offer. One might argue they are a birthright, or in the very least covered in a clause about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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