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Q&A Series with Jess Sanders, Director of Technical Services and Research of Casey Trees in Washington, DC

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This month, as spring brightens up our communities, we are looking at the importance of our urban ecosystems, particularly trees. Urban trees provide a myriad of benefits to cities, from absorbing harmful pollutants to reducing urban heat islands, but many communities struggle to increase or maintain their urban tree canopies. Jess Sanders, PhD, Director of Technical Services and Research of Casey Trees in Certified STAR Community Washington, DC, shares with us how her organization works“to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the nation’s capital.”

JessicaCasey Trees was founded in 2002 to address a declining tree canopy and established a target goal of attaining 40% canopy by 2032 in Washington, DC (in 2011 it was at 35%). To accomplish this goal isn’t as simple as it sounds and involves more than just planting more trees and maintaining the existing one. What are the challenges faced by trees in cities and what has Casey Trees’ approach been to carrying out its mission?

Urban areas continue to expand both in geographic size and in citizenry. Through the Sustainable DC plan, DC hopes to have 250,000 new residents by 2032. Due to building height limitations, in order to accomplish this, DC has to be built out – not up. Development and construction are the largest problem with maintaining and expanding a tree canopy. Building footprints are getting larger and trees continue to be an afterthought in the process; they look great on plans but are usually the first thing to be cut when there are project overages. We try to work and insert trees in every facet of the building process, using our tree advocates to stand up for trees.

We want to be a resource for improving trees – not a hindrance to increasing urban populations. After all, trees help to make urban areas more livable and lovable! By embracing the growing city and advocating for more green spaces for people to play in, we are creating a better city to live in!

As director of the Research and Mapping Department at Casey Trees, what role does technology play in Casey Trees’ work?

Technology is pivotal to the organization. The heart of our mission is people and trees. My department is responsible for mapping and maintaining all of the data on the trees for all departments, and then conducting research to better understand the growth and survival of trees, as well as underline connections that people have with nature in cities.

Sometimes the most effective way to communicate our message is visually with a map. As an example, we recently created a flowering tree map so that anyone can go and search out spring’s beautiful blossoms – not just the cherry trees!

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Casey Trees takes a very strategic approach to fulfilling its mission. Why is it important to use data and to be strategic in how cities maintain existing trees and plant more trees

We want to plant trees where they will make the most impact and where they will have the largest chance of survival. We take a multilevel approach when thinking about where to plant trees. Everyone has limited resources and we want to ensure that we are providing the greatest good to all, not just making the green areas of the city greener.

Trees take a long time to grow and when they mature, they are huge assets to the community. It is important to ensure we are thinking about a maintained and expanded canopy for the long term and strategically plant not only to create canopy where there isn’t any, but also ensure that the areas that have canopy continue to have it.

It is important to know the most information about sites in order to provide the best species for a site for the long term health of the tree. We use maps to determine where trees are lacking, wanted, and establish priorities and partnerships to accomplish our goals.

By using data, we work to ensure that trees have what they need in order to thrive and can communicate our message to many different people in the way that reaches them the best. Door hangers don’t work for everyone, neither do tweets. We want to ensure that we are reaching all members of our city through effective communications.

Using data allows you to have as many tools in the toolbox as possible – it opens up doors and creates new options. Data helps to improve processes and programs. It really is true: knowledge is power.

Planting trees often means navigating various governmental and non-governmental hurdles (utilities, code enforcement, historic preservation, etc.). How has Casey Trees worked with partners in Washington D.C. to simplify this and bring partners on board?

We work with many partners and all have their hurdles. We try to be seen as a positive partner who is looking out for communities. To plant a tree, you need permission, whether it is the homeowner or a permit for a park through the city. While the permission process may be different, communication is the key.

We work to make getting trees easy and worthwhile for all. A great example of this is our Urban Tree Selection Guide, which provides key information for selecting trees suitable for landscapes in the urban Mid-Atlantic. While these aren’t the only trees that will thrive, it is a palate for people to choose from when they feel overwhelmed in the process and are not sure what will work for them.

The STAR Community Rating System measures the benefits of a healthy urban tree canopy in several measures—Green Infrastructure, Natural Resource Protection, and Outdoor Air Quality are just a few. What metrics does Casey Trees use to measure your success and why is it important to use metrics?

We measure success in various ways, we have an annual Tree Report Card that looks at 4 key metrics of the District’s trees: Tree Planting, Tree Coverage, Tree Health, and Tree Protection. By yearly evaluating the condition and extent of the canopy as well as how many trees are getting in the ground and whether the trees remaining there, we know how to focus our efforts. As an example if we aren’t protecting the trees we plant and ensuring that they become healthy, mature trees, then we are really wasting our efforts. We want to ensure that trees have the best chance of survival and the largest impact to the community.

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