Old Northeast Tree Canopy is Our Green Crown Jewel
By Nick Bell, HONNA president

How many times have you walked down an Old Northeast street and stopped to admire our beautiful tree canopy? If not, you should! Along with our historic homes, the lush trees that line our streets are the green jewels in our crown. And we cannot take this green jewel for granted.

Whenever we face a menacing tropical storm such as Idalia, one of my first thoughts turns to our age-old canopy. Will it suffer the same fate as the massive southern live oaks in the panhandle that were devastated by the raging storm? The city reported Idalia downed 42 trees, but as I toured our neighborhood the day after the hurricane sent a record storm surge into Tampa Bay, I breathed a sigh of relief that we had once again dodged a bullet. Our beautiful canopy suffered only minor damage and would live to face Mother Nature’s next threat. 

Other than providing dense shade and aesthetic enjoyment, what other benefits do the thousands of trees in the Old Northeast provide? How do we take care of these “jewels” so they will last for generations to come? And what is HONNA and the city doing to preserve the existing canopy and promote the planting of new trees? This three-part series will explore these issues and, hopefully, inspire Old Northeast residents to “dig in” and become canopy advocates.

When we think of the tree canopy, mature southern live oaks that line many of our streets immediately come to mind. Their branches hover above our rooftops and their graceful limbs reach across the street, joining with their counterparts to create a shady enclave. Besides these massive signature trees, our lush landscape contains scores of additional trees that also deserve recognition as important components of our landscape. 

This first article in our three-part series explores the benefits of our protective canopy and what the city is doing to preserve and enhance it. 

According to Dean Hay, St. Pete’s Senior Urban Forestry Specialist, the city is focusing on trees as an important weapon to battle the effects of climate change. Our summers are getting hotter and hotter. This year the Tampa Bay area suffered through numerous heat advisories and warnings. Many days saw heat index temperatures exceed 100 degrees. 

Quantifiable benefits of a tree canopy prove that large, healthy trees cool homes, provide shade on blistering streets, filter our air, offset carbon emissions, and mitigate storm runoff. In fact, areas with a healthy tree canopy have average temperatures 6 degrees cooler than those neighborhoods without. 

Dean says St. Pete’s tree canopy analysis in 2017 reported a canopy of just over 27%, compared with Tampa’s canopy of 30% (its lowest level in 26 years). Both cities have been recognized with the Tree City USA award for many decades. But the tree canopies we enjoy today were not a natural occurrence when both cities were born. Back then, our landscape consisted largely of native palms, scrub, and southern pines. Today’s mature canopy trees were haphazardly planted over 50 years ago. Little thought was given to today’s modern infrastructure and eager developers who often see trees as something to be removed instead of preserved. 

Dean says the city is committed to preserving and enhancing its protective canopy for the reasons noted above. Parts of the city have a canopy as low as 17%. Those neighborhoods will be the initial focus of the city’s tree planting program. “This year we expect to plant 600 trees with volunteers and possibly doubling that amount annually going forward,” he notes. And by the end of this year, Dean says he will be developing a St. Pete tree canopy ecosystem services report. Stay tuned for more on that later this year.

Last year the Urban Forestry Committee created a Citizen Science program named the Citizen Forester Program. Its purpose is to work with residents to become “tree stewards,” increase the importance of urban forestry awareness by engaging residents with service project opportunities, and advocate for the improved health and resilience of our urban forest. 

The Citizen Forester Program offers tree inventory training for volunteers as well as support to residents wanting to plant trees that will provide the important social, environmental, and economic benefits. Mapping the tree canopy – types of trees present and canopy percentage – will provide critical information to guide the city and the Old Northeast as we decide what and where to plant new trees. 

If you’d like more information about how you can help promote and enhance our neighborhood’s beautiful canopy, email board member Monique Kramer at moniquek522@gmail.com.