April 26, 2010
By JoAnn Greco
One thousand trees planted around town last Saturday. Another couple thousand promised by the end of June. At this rate, Philadelphia will surely get its much bally-hooed 300,000 new trees in the ground well before the target of 2015.
If not, I'll quit, says Michael DiBerardinis, Commissioner of the Department of the Parks and Recreation. No sweat, says Drew Becher, president-elect of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. "I don't think that goal is off the charts," he offers. "In New York, they've planted 350,000 trees in just two and a half years."
To the latter, DiBerardinis and Becher, fresh from a kickoff planting in Francisville last weekend, say new trees are more than just pretty additions. "They're an investment in our future at a pretty miniscule cost," Becher said.
They're also symbolic, he adds. "The tree stands for many of the much larger initiatives of the city's Greenworks plan," Becher says. "It helps with storm water, it helps reduce electrical costs. It is an icon and, as in New York, it will drive others to contribute. Everyone loves trees — they really resonate with corporate and private funders."
Becher cites The Apple's success with public-private partnerships as key to getting everyone on board, and says a similar strategy is the way for Philly to accomplish its own more modest goals.
This weekend's plantings, for example, came courtesy of a $1.65 million grant from Pennvest, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, that covered a total of 8,000 new trees planted in recent weeks throughout the five-county region. About 1,000 were planted on the streets of Philadelphia.
"Private help is critical. I was just down at the Navy Yard and it was amazing the number of trees that were going into the ground," Becher says. "And this weekend, volunteers were out there planting as part of the Comcast Cares Day. We're also thinking about approaching Home Depot — in New York, they contributed $1.5 million to tree planting."
If Becher turns often to New York as an example, it's because he's intimately familiar with that city's ambitious MillionTrees initiative, having spearheaded it as executive director of the New York Restoration Project. There, too, he faced skepticism, especially from weary citizens who had waited for years to get their requested street trees. "Once a solid plan was in place, we were able to gain people's confidence," he says. "We started by wrapping up that tree backlist within a year or so."
Over the summer, Becher says, PHS will form a working group to develop a strategic plan for Philly that should be in effect by the fall. That plan will detail where trees will go and how many will be planted when. "I say you make big plans first, set some goals, then you put things in place to make them happen," he laughs.
The numbers work out to planting 30,000 trees each in the spring and the fall over the next five years. "We've got a couple of thousand Tree Tenders alone," Becher points out. "We've got the best tree stewardship program in the country."
To encourage other individual participation, Becher says that PHS will look into instituting a giving mechanism where people can "buy" trees in others' names or memories, as gifts or tributes. "We did that in New York and raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars," he says. (Costs vary for each tree planting, depending on whether a new pit has to be dug or not, but Becher says they average out to a "couple of hundred dollars" each.)
And while Philadelphia is (famously and in a lot of ways) not New York, we do have an advantage, Becher adds. "Unlike other cities, Philadelphia has an huge infrastructure for green efforts in place through PHS and other community groups," he says. "That's a tremendous boost."
The upshot, Becher says: "We can do it. It's not about whether or not New York did it. Chicago is doing it, Houston is doing it, Baltimore is doing it. Even Indianapolis and Cincinnati are doing it! Why can't Philadelphia?"
Contact JoAnn Greco, ASJA, SATW, at www.joanngreco.com
Check out her new online magazine, TheCityTraveler at www.thecitytraveler.com