With Boston officials estimating that nearly 40 percent of new city trees die within seven years of being planted, Mayor Michelle Wu announced Wednesday she’s creating a forestry division within the Boston Parks and Recreation Department to preserve the city’s existing trees and plant new ones.
The announcement comes as her administration released a new Urban Forest Plan, which provides a roadmap for how to grow the city’s tree canopy.
Wu made the announcement Wednesday at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, which gave the city a gift of 10 dawn redwood trees to be planted in neighborhoods across Boston. Those redwoods are descendants of seeds provided by China in 1948, the first such redwoods to grow in North America in more than 2 million years, arboretum officials said.
“Trees are our best green technology to fight climate change and build healthy, beautiful communities, especially as heat and storms intensify,” Wu said. “Dedicating staff and resources to our new forestry division will empower the city of Boston to strengthen our tree canopy citywide, so every community benefits from these treasured resources.”
Wu said the new forestry division will grow Boston’s tree team from five to 16 city employees, with resources to plant new trees and inspect, maintain, and prune existing ones, focusing on “under-canopied and environmental justice neighborhoods.”
The new division will include a director of urban forestry, three arborists, three three-person maintenance crews, and other support staff.
The larger staff, supported by the city’s new investments in trees, will improve the Parks and Recreation Department’s ability to respond more quickly to tree maintenance requests and clear a maintenance backlog, with the goal of reducing tree mortality, city officials said.
“Boston’s trees beautify our communities, create oxygen, and mitigate the urban heat island effect, while cleaning pollution from our air,” said Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s chief of environment, energy, and open space.
She added: “We know that Boston’s history of disinvestment has led to inequitable access to trees. I am thrilled that the city’s new forestry division will take proactive steps to correct these inequities.”
The city has a history of failing to live up to its promises to plant and protect new trees.
In 2008, Mayor Thomas M. Menino vowed that Boston would plant 100,000 new trees by 2020, expanding the city’s tree canopy by 20 percent.
Boston, however, fell woefully short.
Between fiscal years 2008 and 2017, the city planted 9,809 street trees and removed 5,815 — a net gain of fewer than 4,000, according to a Globe review of records in 2018.
While many more trees were planted on private property, which makes up about half of all land in Boston, the city’s canopy may have actually decreased in that period.
When Menino announced his plan in 2007, city officials said a “comprehensive assessment” found that 29 percent of city land had trees.
A decade later, an assessment of the city’s canopy that used more sophisticated, high-resolution aerial imagery and lasers determined that just 27 percent of Boston’s land had trees. A 2014 study by a Boston University professor placed the figure around 25 percent.
While Boston has challenges that some other cities lack, such as densely populated neighborhoods and limited amounts of open space, its tree canopy lags behind most other cities. Overall, urban areas in Massachusetts have about 65 percent of their land covered by trees; nationally, the figure is 35 percent, according to a 2012 study by the US Forest Service.
The trees have also been concentrated in some neighborhoods, leading to temperature disparities in those neighborhoods with fewer trees.
In a city report last year, city officials noted that temperatures in leafier neighborhoods are often significantly lower than in more densely populated areas. For example, on one summer day in 2019, city officials found afternoon temperatures in Chinatown and Lower Roxbury exceeded 105 degrees, about 10 degrees more than in Franklin Park and West Roxbury. There was a similar disparity at night.
Wu’s creation of a forestry division follows the first recommendation of the Urban Forest Plan, which has a series of strategies to improve the urban canopy.
The other efforts include a “cyclical care program” to proactively protect trees; improving the quality of planting sites and clearing space for trees to grow; and providing more tree data to local groups to enable them to help care for trees in their neighborhoods.
“Our new tree division will significantly expand the city’s capacity to plant and care for trees in every neighborhood,” said Ryan Woods, director of Boston Parks and Recreation. “We are committed to increasing the survival rate of our new plantings and supporting the growth and maturation of trees across Boston, particularly in communities that need more canopy.”