Street trees—you walk by them everyday on your way to work or out to lunch with a friend. But do you ever think about why they might be there? Aside from looking nice, they provide essential health benefits to both people and the planet.
David Mesholaum, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Speak for the Trees, is on a mission to map every street tree in Boston and spread the word about the importance of trees. Speak for the Trees is an urban tree nonprofit that focuses on and cares for the trees in Boston. “We think trees are critically important for public health,” Mesholaujm said. “We also think that they provide people with a lot of joy and meaning in life.”
Mesholaum said he came up with the idea for the nonprofit while teaching high school science. “I became disillusioned with the limitations of the classroom and wanted to connect people with science in a way that felt more meaningful,” he said. “Trees became a metaphor for that.”
“I felt like people had stopped talking to each other,” Msheolaum said. “A tree is a place I think is public—people can gather, share stories, share time together.”
He researched other cities who were doing work in the field to create an organization in Boston that could address what he calls an “environmental justice issue.”
Early on in his research and work, Mesholaum and his team focused early in in “environmental injustice neighborhoods,” which he said are ones with “less economic mobility or opportunity,” and therefore more inequity in the tree canopy. These are typically ares where immigrants or non-native English speakers live, he said, and also areas where the city and state recognizes as spaces where people are most likely to struggle with effects of climate change. Working in the neighborhoods of Mattapan and Dorchester, Mesholaum and his team did a tree planting and giveaway.
Now, he wants to go one step further and map every street tree, starting in Dorchester and Roxbury and working up through the city to East Boston. Working with Boston Youth Engagement and Employment, Mesholaum will teach youth about trees and how to map them.
On July 24, Mesholaum and his team trained employees of the John Hancock Company at their offices in downtown Boston, where they met at Copley for a tour and inventoried trees right by the Boston Public Library.
At their training sessions, Speak For Trees teaches people how to identify and measure trees, and for the tree mapping initiative, people will walk up and down city blocks and learn how to use their smartphone to pinpoint exactly where every street tree is. They will then write down what type of tree it is, how big it is, what type of material it’s planted in, if there is tape around the tree, etc. People will “get a sense of how the tree is doing and whether we have adequate diversity of our tree canopy,” Mesholaum said.
“There are some streets that are beautifully canopied,” he continued. But others have trees few and far between—these are known as tree deserts. In some cases, there are blocks and blocks where there is not a single street tree, he said. “Some of them don’t even have pits to grow in,” it’s just concrete everywhere.
Carol Blair, President of the Chester Square Neighbors, participated in one of Mesholaum’s training sessions and has applied her newfound knowledge to her neighborhood and beyond. She spent an afternoon walking the Chester Square area of the South End logging what kinds of trees are there, their diameters, and their positions, as well as “any special things we should know about it,” Blair said. Going out with the intent of mapping trees helps people “get to know the tree in a way you didn’t know before,” she said, and “figure out how to care for it.”
Since then, she’s tried to engage the neighborhood in learning more about trees and taking inventory. She worked with some students at Northeastern University who did some inventory as well.
“I’ve become involved working with the city on a proposal to rebuild Melnea Cass Boulevard,” she added. In 2011, the city went out to the community with a portal for bus lanes, which wiped out a lot of the street trees. Over the past year, the design for the project has changed, Blair said. “Even though they haven’t really accomplished a lot with the design, it’s not good for pedestrians and bicyclists,” she said.
Blair said they city has said they will put back more trees than they take out, but the trees they will plant small trees with a low survival rate. “The new trees are not going to do well,” Blair said.
“The Melnea Cass Boulevard is the biggest heat island the city has,” Blair said. She said if things are going to be changed, trees and green space needs to be improved as part of the project in order to address issues of climate change. There is a deadline of late September for a contractor, and if the deadline is not met, the money for the project goes back into a larger pot.
Mesholaum believes that teaching people how to map trees is a “really great way” to engage people in learning about their trees. “It’s really critical that we start making people aware,” he said, as “people have plant blindness.” He hopes this project will help people understand why trees are important and will also help Speak for Trees determine where in the city trees need to go.
“For the city, we hope it’s a tool for them to help them manage their urban forest,” he said. “They can have a snapshot of where the urban forest is.” While there are catalogues of trees in parks along the Emerald Necklace, they don’t typically include all of the street trees located throughout the city.
Mesholaum said they will probably map up to 6,000 trees this summer, and then finish the map next year. That wasn’t the original goal, but they are going to recalibrate and decide whether to expand the program or extend the amount of time it takes to map the trees.
“I always acknowledge that we are so lucky in Boston,” Mesholaum said. “We have an amazing park system and green space throughout the city,” and he said he is proud that the city has taken care of its historic green space.
However, there are still spaces that are “under cared for and under-engaged,” when it comes to trees and plant life he said, and “it’s those spaces that need more attention.”