Columbus' Tree Canopy is Meager and Inequitable. Can the City’s New Master Plan Make an Impact?

How the city plans to make a more robust and equitable urban canopy.

Randy Edwards
Peggy Williams with the tree that she planted in her South Linden yard

Peggy A. Williams has a new tree in her front yard. It’s just a sapling, really, and before the spring leaves have sprouted on Cleveland Avenue its slender trunk and spindly branches are barely visible against a gray sky. Yet Williams has high hopes for this little tree, though it will be many years before it provides much shade to her front porch. At 76 years old, she knows it’s the next generation that will reap most of the benefits of this woody addition to her property.

“It’s a maple, and I’ve named her Mabel, to help with remembering,” Williams says. “It’s my understanding that trees take 20 to 30 years to mature, so we’re looking to 2050.

“But I’m proud of my tree. I guess I’m drawn to trees,” Williams explains, “because I like their structure. And they’re symbolic of strength, but also flexibility.”

Mabel, planted with the help of the forestry section of Columbus’ Recreation and Parks Department and documented in a how-to video, is symbolic, too, of the city’s commitment to substantially expand its shade tree coverage. Following the guidelines of the Columbus Urban Forestry Master Plan, a document approved in the spring of 2021, Columbus is aiming for a 40 percent tree canopy by 2050, “distributed equitably across the city.”

It’ll take a lot of trees to get there. The most recent assessment of Columbus’ urban forest showed canopy cover at 22 percent, and that survey is nearly a decade old and likely doesn’t account for a lot of real estate development since then, or the full cost of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle, which killed 18,000 street trees across the city. But even a conservative estimate finds Ohio’s capital city to be far less leafy than the roughly 40 percent coverage enjoyed by nearby cities Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

The urban forest is not only meager, but unevenly distributed, with neighborhood tree cover ranging from 9 to 41 percent. As is happening throughout the country, city officials are looking at the issue of “tree equity” and finding that wealthier, whiter communities also have more shade, while neighborhoods that have historically lacked investment, especially communities of color, have less.

How much shade does your neighborhood get? View an interactive map of Columbus' urban tree canopy

For example, trees cover 21 percent of the South Linden neighborhood where Williams has lived for two decades. Drive 10 minutes over to Clintonville, and you’re twice as likely to find shade (41 percent).

Aside from the grace and beauty of a tree-lined street, proponents of a more robust urban forest say trees are a balm for many ills, including air and water pollution and flooded streets. Healthy trees are tied to maintaining property values. More importantly, a dense tree canopy can lower overall ambient temperatures by 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat stress is a primary cause of weather-related death in America and is expected to get worse in cities as climate change amplifies what are known as “urban heat islands.”

“Columbus has the fastest-growing urban heat island in the country, and we’re the eighth-hottest heat island,” says Rosalie Hendon, an environmental planner for the city who led the development of the master plan.

That’s based on a 2014 study by Climate Central, which compared temperature records in 60 U.S. cities to those in surrounding rural areas. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this phenomenon, so it’s no surprise that the Urban Forestry Master Plan has been incorporated into the city’s first-ever Climate Action Plan, also approved last year.

This is not the first time the city has recognized its sparse forest cover and vowed to improve it. A program announced after the 2013 tree assessment called for planting 300,000 trees by 2020. Ambitious in scope and timeline, it fell far short of its goal. The new plan is more detailed, sets interim milestones and comes after several years of meetings with forest and landscape experts and residents like Williams, who is a former member of the South Linden Area Commission.

It’s no less ambitious, though. Hendon says that to increase canopy by just one percentage point, an additional 1,800 acres of canopy will be required—about the same area of leaf cover as the ground acreage of Ohio State’s main campus.

Work has begun, starting with a pilot project to inventory street trees and then plant 500 more in South Linden, a priority neighborhood due to its lower-than-average canopy and its high “equity score,” which considers historic disinvestment practices, such as bank redlining, along with other land use patterns, social and economic factors.  

The city also has purchased the site of a vacant elementary school on the South Side and plans to plant 2,000 native trees there. The parks department has received an additional $3 million over the past two capital budgets to implement the plan. The money has been and will continue to be supplemented through state and federal funds, Hendon says.

“I’d say there’s a strong commitment from city leadership toward implementing this plan,” she says.

But planting parks and street trees can only go so far, she added. Seventy percent of Columbus’ urban forest canopy is on private land, and Hendon says the city should consider an ordinance that protects trees on private land, a regulation already in place in Austin, Charlotte, Jacksonville and Indianapolis. “It’s unusual for a city the size of Columbus to not have something that protects trees while land is under development,” she says.

This story is from the April 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.