EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A group of about 30 community members gathered at a local library this week to learn how growing trees can help mitigate the effects of climate change, and how small community and state partnerships are bringing in federal grants, inspiring policy, and making planting trees part of the states’s agenda to become more resilient against flooding and extreme heat.
The work is already underway in East Providence — one of the hottest cities in Rhode Island — and it started with a group of neighbors who “just couldn’t stand the sound of chainsaws making EP a barren, concrete place,” said Jenn Tierney, one of the founding members of East Providence Urban Forest, formed in 2020.
In three years, the group has helped attract federal funds for tree planting projects, revived the city’s tree ordinance, which establishes standards for use of native plants on city property, and helped reinstate the city’s tree commission and forester position, which had been vacant for more than 10 years. The group also planted a Native Tree Grove behind Whiteknact Elementary in 2021, and led another community tree planting at Orlo Avenue Elementary in 2022.
So when Green Infrastructure Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that provides solutions to environmental challenges, arrived in Rhode Island to bring their forestry planning and mapping expertise to communities at the invitation of the state’s Department of Environmental Management, East Providence was eager to partner up.
The Green Infrastructure Center presented findings to the community on Tuesday, having worked here over the last year. Their presentation used models and maps to show the most strategic places in East Providence to plant trees to reduce urban flooding, clean stormwater runoff, reduce urban heating, and improve air quality.
“We also understand how codes and policies in a city can affect whether trees have a long or a short life,” said Karen Firehock, executive director of Green Infrastructure Center.
They are currently working on a final report for the city, which they plan to present in spring 2024.
Trees are an effective way to offset climate change because they “mitigate extreme heat, conserve energy, provide shade, absorb stormwater, create wildlife, and filter air and water,” according to the US Forest Service. “An urban tree canopy leads to better health outcomes.”
“And as it turns out, people actually love to plant trees,” Tierney said. “It’s a joyful event. Almost a catharsis.”
Rhode Island’s congressional leaders are also investing in planting trees. In September, US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Seth Magaziner announced $6.75 million in federal funding for three projects in Rhode Island, with $750,000 allotted to East Providence that has been matched by the city to implement a $1.5 million citywide urban forestry plan, which includes tree planting, a workforce development program, and environmental education programs. In April, Rhode Island received $1.2 million in Inflation Reduction Act funding for the state’s Urban and Community Forestry Program.
Using funding from the state, the Green Infrastructure Center plans to work in eight communities in Rhode Island, and started in East Providence, Bristol, and Barrington in early 2023. Other communities can apply now to receive assistance, according to Green Infrastructure Center forest conservation director Matthew Lee. It’s a competitive process, Lee said, and decisions will be announced in February 2024.
On Tuesday at the Fuller Learning Center, an extension of the city’s public library, Lee presented recent data for East Providence. Seven large vertical maps of the city were displayed, highlighting findings like the percentage of tree cover on every street, how well existing tree canopies capture stormwater, and where sparse tree coverage likely results in flooding. The maps helped identify priority areas for planting trees, Lee said. He talked about the process for collecting tree canopy data, in which high-resolution aerial photos of urban spaces are analyzed to understand how much tree coverage there is in an area, so they can map out plans to plant more.
“Knowing what’s possible for East Providence gives us a range for which we can set a goal,” Lee said.
East Providence’s tree canopy scored 34 percent, which Lee called “pretty good.” He said based on the data, maps, and recommended modifications, the city’s tree canopy capacity could reach 36 percent. He broke down the air quality benefits with the city’s current canopy, including the rates at which the city’s trees remove carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other harmful greenhouse gases from the air. He talked about how 20 percent of annual rainfall is captured in the crowns of trees, which can delay runoff up to 3.5 hours. Urban tree canopies allow water to move through the system, and not back up it, which can prevent flooding, Lee said.
In a summary of the data, Lee said East Providence’s goal should be to maintain at least the current canopy level of 34 percent, with an aim of increasing 1-2 percent over the next 10 years. That would require 12,015 additional trees, that is, 1,200 trees planted per year. It is a multimillion-dollar project.
“The goal requires active tree planting and protection throughout the community,” Lee said, adding that the Green Infrastructure Center had worked with the city’s staff and tree commission members to come up with the goal.
Tierney emphasized that if it wasn’t for the partnerships East Providence Urban Forest established early on, the small group probably wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much.
The group’s first partner was Johanna Walczak, East Providence’s city planner, who is “passionate about the environment,” Tierney said. “She really got things rolling for us, by introducing us to other key folks.”
Mayor Bob DaSilva is also on board with planting more trees in the city, and he supported Walczak dedicating work hours to East Providence Urban Forest meetings and events, Tierney said.
“Without Johanna, we’d just be another group fighting city hall, instead of working on this great public-grassroots partnership,” she said.
Other key members of the group are East Providence resident Carol Auer, a retired botany professor from the University of Connecticut, and Mark Hengen, who was once an urban forester in New York City, Tierney said.
“They really helped us understand about the nuts and bolts of urban forest policy and what our goals needed to be as a citizen-led group,” she added.
Taking action is also paying off. The group was out during one of the hottest days of 2021, taking tree measurements around the city to update its tree inventory. Volunteers ranged in age from 10 to 87 years old, Tierney said, and that action is part of what positioned the group to work with the Green Infrastructure Center.
More communities in Rhode Island will have that opportunity, too.
“We just started with the ones that were ready to bite at the bit,” Lee said.