Raleigh’s thriving tree canopy marks city’s identity

Sixteen years after the ravages of Hurricane Fran and decades of development, Raleigh’s tree canopy is flourishing

nbarnett@newsobserver.comApril 8, 2012 

— Hurricane Fran passed over Raleigh shortly after midnight on Sept. 6, 1996, toppling trees by the thousands and sending oaks and pines slamming into roofs and powerlines.

The scene the next morning looked like the work of a monstrous Paul Bunyan, a vast chaos of trees snapped in half and others uprooted and tossed across roads, homes and cars. That wild harvesting was but a one-day skirmish in a years-long assault on the city’s trees. During a 1990s land rush, the decade saw several thousand wooded acres clear-cut to make way for shopping centers and subdivisions.

But this spring, nearly 16 years later, an observer high up in one of Raleigh’s downtown towers marvels at a remarkable sight — beyond the downtown core, the city disappears beneath a flourishing canopy of green.

The view is peaceful, but keeping it is not. City residents, officials and politicians who want to preserve — and ideally expand — the presence of trees are up against the pressures of an increasing population and the rights of developers and property owners to shape their land as they see fit.

One reason Raleigh’s trees have not withered under those pressures is because they found a champion in Charles Meeker. During a record-tying five terms as mayor, from 2001 to 2011, he pushed for a strong tree-conservation ordinance and an expansion of open space and parkland. In 2003 and 2007, voters approved two parks and greenway bond issues totaling $137.7 million. About a quarter of the money targeted preserving open spaces in Raleigh. The city now has 9,500 acres of park and greenway land, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2001.

While Meeker is known for developing a vibrant downtown, his broader legacy may be the greening of Raleigh, the shading, cooling, quieting, air-cleansing effect of trees.

“We are very different from most cities I can think of in terms of the green attractiveness of our environment,” Meeker said. “Raleigh’s identity and brand is very closely associated with trees.”

The former mayor, a Raleigh lawyer, says the city’s tree cover isn’t a testament to him, but to local officials and residents who pressed to keep the city’s growth from paving over the natural environment.

“I was one of many voices,” he said. “It’s about the public believing that something should be done, and it has been done.”

The results are impressive, especially to new arrivals and visitors.

Meg Lowman, director of the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an expert on tree canopies, came to Raleigh from Florida in July 2010. She said she felt “absolute joy” when she looked out from her downtown high-rise condo to see the dense and diverse cover of trees.

“When I look down, I can’t believe it,” she said. “It is a total changing panorama. Every single day I study the canopy in this town.”

Andy Gilliam, the city’s forestry specialist in the Planning Department, said that when he tells people outside of Raleigh what he does for a living, he hears a common response.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, Raleigh is such a beautiful city. There are so many trees. The tree canopy is just gorgeous,’ ” he said.

Trees grow with the city

Raleigh has managed to preserve its trees while remaining one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. In the past decade alone, from 2000 to 2010, its population increased from 276,093 to 403,892. The city’s borders also expanded during the period, as Raleigh grew from 118 square miles to 143 square miles.

The toll of that growth on the city’s tree cover has not been systematically assessed. However, a recent look at the city of Charlotte’s changing canopy shows how potent the effect can be.

An analysis by the nonprofit conservation group American Forests found that from 1985 to 2008, Charlotte lost 49 percent of its tree canopy while gaining 39 percent of urban area. Gilliam estimates that Raleigh also has experienced a substantial loss as the city’s borders have expanded.

And yet, it doesn’t look that way. From on high, you can’t see the people for the trees.

Lowman said Raleigh’s connection to trees is unusual. Even in such forested regions as upstate New York, where she grew up, cities tend to clear the urban and residential space and leave the trees on the outskirts, she said.

“The really special part about Raleigh is people are living among the trees rather than driving out to see the trees,” she said.

One reason trees are prominent in Raleigh, even in its newer developments, is the tree-preservation ordinance. Adopted in 2005 after much haggling with developers and architects, the law requires that 10 percent of the trees on a building site be preserved. Between the tree ordinance and the city’s exacting landscaping requirements, developers can be required to keep as much as a quarter of a site covered by trees and bushes.

The ordinance may face changes, however. The city Planning Commission is reviewing all laws and rules that apply to new development under the city’s Unified Development Ordinance. The review is expected be completed in June, with recommended changes going to the City Council for approval.

Suzanne Harris, vice president for governmental affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, said homebuilders will push for more flexibility in the tree-conservation ordinance. They want it to allow for special conditions on building sites.

“It’s not that they don’t want to save trees,” Harris said of her members, “but you can’t always put a cookie-cutter approach to things and have it work as intended.”

Harris said the law adds to development costs and sometimes ends up protecting only “scrub brush pines and not some older, nicer trees.”

Meeker said the law already has incorporated compromises with developers and has not been a barrier to growth.

“It’s had just the opposite effect,” he said. “By having higher standards for trees, it has caused more development to come here.”

Climate spurs trees

One force that fuels the profusion of trees in the capital is a climate ripe for growing many types.

“North Carolina is extraordinary,” Lowman said. “The diversity here ranges almost from subtropical forest to arctic tree line all the way down to coastal forest. You probably have a larger tree list here than almost any other state in the country.”

Another factor is the human climate. The City of Oaks reveres trees. Every new year begins with the ceremonial dropping of a giant, metal acorn. The 9,284-square-foot “shimmer wall” on the side of the new Convention Center depicts a stand of swaying oaks. The annual 5K Run for the Oaks hosted by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department raises money to plant trees and trees are handed out free to runners. Trees Across Raleigh, a volunteer tree-planting group, put its first tree in the ground the spring after Fran and since then has put in 8,500 more. The city’s NeighborWoods program gives residents free trees to plant, adding about 1,500 trees a year to the city’s residential streets.

All of this tree saving and planting, along with so many parks, campuses, greenways and gardens, means spring arrives in Raleigh each year with a bright green jolt. As skeletal trees leaf out, winter vistas close and neighbors’ homes disappear behind a screen of green.

Cindy Rice, who owns a landscape architecture and planning company and is a board member of Trees Across Raleigh, remembers when she and her husband first encountered the lushness of their new home in 1990 after moving here from Seattle. They tried to tour the city by driving the Beltline, but mostly what they saw were trees.

Years later, Rice is still taken by the annual greening of Raleigh.

“The trees are like a veil. They are coming down right now,” she said. “In the fall, the veil goes up.”

The unfurling of the leaves also brings nuisances: clouds of pine pollen, dangling inch worms and sap. Then, there are the leaf-heavy boughs that dip over sidewalks – what Sally Thigpen, the urban forester for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, calls “face-slappers.”

“Once the leaves are on, we’ll be inundated with requests for tree pruning,” Thigpen said. “There’s pretty good job security there.”

Thigpen counsels residents seeking to have a tree removed to "just hold out," despite the annoyances of pollen, insects or the autumn rain of acorns. Trees aren’t merely decorative in a city, she said, they’re essential. They provide shade in the southern summer, provide a home for wildlife, secure the soil, clean the air and prevent stormwater floods. Their fallen leaves are collected and made into mulch for use in parks.

“It’s called green infrastructure,” she said. “We consider trees to be as important as utilities.”

Nancy Stairs, urban and community forestry program coordinator with the North Carolina Forest Service, said urban forests are favored by most cities, but not all are willing to pay for the maintenance.

“Any tree canopy requires management to maintain. That always costs money and it’s a big challenge to do that,” she said.

Raleigh has made the investment, employing eight certified arborists and spending $1.13 million annually on staff, tree planting and maintenance. Stairs said it’s money well spent on a municipal asset.

“The green infrastructure increases in value over time while the gray infrastructure decreases in value,” she said.

Appreciation and worry

Bill Padgett is typical of Raleigh’s tree fans. Retired from N.C. State, he serves on one of the city’s Wade Avenue Citizens Advisory Council and on the board of Trees Across Raleigh.

“One of the big pleasures of Raleigh is how green we are,” he said. “The key is to maintain that and, as we have development, don’t lose that big canopy of trees.”

Padgett worries that the canopy may be in danger because of a gap in the tree preservation ordinance that exempts lots of less than 2 acres, a category that includes most of the city’s residential property. He said homeowners need to be given an incentive to keep trees.

Meanwhile, he is encouraged that Mayor Nancy McFarlane and other city officials are continuing the commitment to trees and to a greener Raleigh.

“If we ever get city government that says it’s not important,” he said, “it wouldn’t take long to plow it all down and lose it.”

Barnett: 919-829-8995

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