Neighbors Rally to Protect East Providence’s Urban Forest
September 23, 2020
EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The copper beech tree on the lawn of the Weaver Library on Grove Avenue is massive. Its thick trunk is gnarled, and on a cool Wednesday evening, a group of 30 or so people are gathered under its spreading boughs.
They’re here to learn about urban forests in Rhode Island and a new group dedicated to designating and preserving one in East Providence: EP Urban Forest.
Urban forests are defined by the U.S. Forest Service as including “urban parks, street trees, landscaped boulevards, gardens, river and coastal promenades, greenways, river corridors, wetlands, nature preserves, shelter belts of trees, and working trees at former industrial sites.”
“Urban forests, through planned connections of green spaces, form the green infrastructure on which communities depend,” according to the federal agency.
“We have around 8,300 trees in East Providence, which includes parks, public buildings, and schools, but doesn’t necessarily account for street trees or conservation areas, forested parks or near reservoirs,” said Mark Hengen, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University who is assisting EP Urban Forest in their arboreal foray.
“This group is just a few neighbors,” said Jenn Tierney, a founding member of EP Urban Forest. “We all came together because none of us could stand the sound of chainsaws anymore in our neighborhoods, or on public or private property. So many trees are getting cut down.”
The downing of trees has repercussions that go beyond aesthetics: trees are an essential part of a balanced ecosystem and provide myriad benefits to humans in the fight against climate change. They provide shade, mitigate the urban heat-island effect, filter particulate matter in the air, and help decrease stormwater runoff pollution.
“Trees do a lot of heavy lifting,” said Molly Henry, climate and health fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit American Forests. “There’s growing evidence that trees in cities — and 80 percent of people live in cities — are key to human health.”
Part of designating an urban forest includes counting the number of trees in a given city. Providence has had a few urban tree counts, one in 2006 and one in 2017, and the state’s capital city is hoping to have another that includes trees on private land in addition to public property.
“We’re looking to have another urban tree canopy study which looks not only at public trees, but trees overall,” said Candace Powning, program coordinator at the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program.
The newly formed EP Urban Forest group plans to have a similar tree count conducted in East Providence, with Tierney hoping that participants will be able to use an app to record trees they find.
“We want to do a tree inventory, and we’re going to do it all over the city with small groups of people and maybe even use an app,” Tierney said. “We want this to be participatory; we want East Providence residents to do everything.”
Hengen jumped at the opportunity to help make this happen, since his environmental studies class at Johnson & Wales helped with Providence’s i-Tree Eco System Analysis published in early 2014, which included citizen scientists recording tree data.
“The procedures involved citizens collecting tree science data, recording the data with cell phones, and compiling the data using free software provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the Davey Tree Company,” Hengen said.
As a former urban forester in New York City and with his background in the Providence tree count, Hengen joined the newly formed East Providence group because, “I spend a lot of time here, the trees are great,” he said. He was also impressed by the group’s fervor to protect and steward the city’s trees and their desire to involve the community in the process.
That’s what this recent evening’s event at Weaver Library was all about.
Eric Crook, a member on the East Providence Planning Board, was in attendance Sept. 16 and let the group gathered know that the timing for this initiative is spot on.
“I can’t emphasize enough the uniqueness of the opportunity now,” he said. “One month ago, we started working on our new master plan. That would affect development issues and tree preservation and tree planting in both the public and private sector. So, if you’re ready to go forward, all you gotta do is walk down to City Hall across the street and talk to the director of the Planning Department and ask for a seat at the table … now would be the time to get that done.”
Tierney, Hengen, and the rest of the burgeoning EP Urban Forest group hope that once their work gets rolling, it will inspire other cities to designate urban forests and work to preserve trees.
“We’re saying, our little group, that we can position ourselves as a leader in this movement in the state, even though we just found out a few months ago what an urban forest is,” Tierney said.