When William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia, he designed it as a complex grid of building and great open spaces.  With two major corridors running north to south, and east to west, and heightened building by the riverfront to enhance the transportation of goods within the city to other locations, the layout was to encourage farm production for both local uses, as well as for trade and transport via these locations.  Unfortunately as Philadelphia began to grow, the original spacious open lots designed by Penn’s surveyor Thomas Holme began to disappear.  While the duo’s initial concepts are still featured in the five major public parks of the city: Logan Circle, Franklin Park, Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square and Fairmount Park, much of the original tree canopy of the city has dissipated.  The urban tree canopy of Philadelphia needs to be revitalized so that future generations can benefit from the numerous sustainable advantages the canopies’ presences provide to the city.

What exactly is an urban tree canopy?  Well an urban tree canopy is defined as the layer of leaves, branches, and stems that cover the ground when viewed from above.  (WFRG)  They are greatly important to sustainability initiatives in cities for many reasons.  First and foremost, an increased canopy presence in cities greatly helps with storm water management, by capturing rainfall that would eventually run off of streets and walkways and into local waters, collecting various pollutants from the surfaces and bringing them along.  Other benefits include reducing air and sound pollution by both siphoning pollutants from the air as well as providing barriers to everyday noises: pedestrians, cars, buses, etc.  Also, the canopy helps to reduce both heating and cooling costs, provides additional wildlife habitats, and most importantly enhances aesthetics of neighborhoods.  Overall, the canopy is a key component to an improved quality of life in various city communities.

In March of 2011 the University of Vermont completed a study on Philadelphia’s current and possible tree canopy, which discovered that the city’s overall canopy was roughly 20 percent.  It was reported that decades ago, the city’s tree canopy was upwards of 40 percent.  There is currently an initial goal of getting the city back to at least 30 percent coverage, but that is by no means the end.  Currently residing in South Philadelphia, I found these statistics rather surprising, actually higher than I expected, but I soon discovered why.  The study found that there were a dozen areas where the tree canopy was between 3 and 8 percent, or noted as ‘almost non-existent.’  Not surprising however, was seeing my current zip code of 19148 being listed as one of the South Philadelphia neighborhoods currently only featuring 3 percent canopy coverage.

Interestingly enough, the report mentions that half of the city’s land could easily support tree canopy, however these goals are unrealistic due to factors such as land costs and usages being impacted such as recreational fields, which are hard to include within an already constructed urban layout.  The Navy Yard, Eastwick, and Bridesburg sections of the city were mentioned as the locations with the highest percentage of land available to meet the current goals of the initiatives.  However, focusing on South Philadelphia, my current residence, it was rather disappointing to dissect the graphs.  While my neighborhood currently only features a 3% tree canopy, there is roughly 42-49% availability for potential tree canopy to be introduced.  The intriguing highlight is that the feasibility of my East Passyunk neighborhood to reach the 30% tree canopy goal of the city as a whole would require us to plant on all possible lots throughout the neighborhood.  Only 19 of the 155 neighborhoods of Philadelphia currently meet or exceed the 30% goal of the city. (UTC report)  However, it is possible for 102 of those neighborhoods to meet the goal by planting on available vegetated land. (UTC report)  In East Passyunk, this would require a 22-27% increase in tree canopy in order to achieve the goal, with readily available 42-49% land availability.

Another interesting fact to discuss via the report is the relationship between the presence of tree canopies in the city and the various major watersheds throughout Philadelphia.  The report discovered that the Thomas Mill Run and Kitchen’s Lane watersheds in northwest Philadelphia each have roughly 68% of their overall land area covered by tree canopy.  The Delaware River watershed has the lowest percentage of its land area covered by tree canopy at 7% however is the largest watershed in the city.  Surprisingly, of the city’s 58 watersheds, only 10 of them have more than 45% of their land area covered by tree canopy, which is the percentage associated with a “good” stream health in the mid-Atlantic region. (UTC report)  Taking these statistics and looking at the breakdown by neighborhood on the maps, once again, the South Philadelphia region contributes to the greatly low dip of the numbers.  All along the Delaware River, existing tree canopy maxes out at 16%, with the majority being in the 7-9% range (and we wonder why the Delaware is so polluted).  With a lack of tree canopy in this highly paved area, rain waters will carry any chemicals and treatments from the road tops, into the sewers and ultimately to the rivers, thus greatly affected sea life.  With all that being presented, the most disappointing statistic is that of that 7-9% existing canopy, over 60% of the land is readily available to introduce tree canopy along the Delaware River watershed.  This means that the 30% goal could easily be surpassed if planting was ONLY focused along the River watershed.

Just this past April, 2012, Philadelphia Horticulture Society President Drew Becher wrote an open letter to South Philadelphia residents urging them to participate in planting trees within their neighborhoods.  In the letter, Becher touches on the fantastic presence of the residents and families within the neighborhoods, the successes of the schools and institutions, stores, and restaurants.  However, the neighborhoods are lacking the tree canopy.  He advises of the significance of bringing the canopy back to the area, addressing the numerous benefits to the community, the environment, and the economy.  “Trees clean the air, reduce storm-water runoff and flooding, lower energy bills, and raise property values.  And, of course, they beautify our blocks and streets,” writes Becher.  The horticulture society plans to hold numerous events this spring and upcoming summer in an effort to get closer to the goal of 30% tree canopy throughout the entire city.  Some of the events include outings with the Philadelphia Phillies, as well as tree giveaways and free tree plantings throughout South Philadelphia (all of these events are posted at plantonemillion.org).

Another organization that is starting to draw a lot of attention to the cause is TreePhilly.  The initiative is led by the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, and has a goal of directly engaging all Philadelphians in improving their local communities by planting and maintaining trees while enabling others to do the same.  TreePhilly is actively creating new programming, pursuing partnerships, and supporting existing planting activities in order to get more trees in the ground and build our City’s canopy. (TreePhilly.org)  The organization takes an “imagine life without trees” approach to promoting their initiative as well as too discusses the many benefits of the trees being implemented within the communities, including reducing flooding and saving money on energy costs.  Much like the PHS, the organization is also actively searching for planting opportunities on public or private lands, recreation centers, libraries, schools, fire and police stations, and any other opportunities that may arise.  Also, they offer FREE services to plant yard trees in yards or along the pavements out front of homes.  There are no gimmicks or anything that the communities need to pay for, the planting and maintenance services are provided for free by the organizations, all it takes is one or two locales to provide the space for the planting of the trees.

While most of my information is focused on South Philadelphia (since I currently reside down here in the East Passyunk neighborhood) it does not mean that it leaves the rest of Philadelphia communities out of the goals.  I hope that with the research provided and the links below, that I may be able to reach a few more people with the intentions of the PHS, TreePhilly, and the numerous other groups currently helping the city slowly progress to the 30%+ goal of tree canopy throughout the city of Philadelphia.  So, what are you waiting for?  Become involved and let’s help Philadelphia achieve its 30% goal.


References made to the treephilly.org website as well as the following:

April 12, 2012 South Philly Review Letter to the Editor: A Green Future for South Philly        -letter written by PHS President Drew Becher

Holt, Shan. “Open Space Adventures in William Penn’s Greene Countrie Town.” American Historical Association.  Dec. 2005 <http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2005/0512/supplement/0512ann11.cfm&gt;

Petrucci, Joe. “TreePhilly: Why A 30 Percent Tree Canopy in Philadelphia Matters.” Flying Kite. 20 Mar. 2012  <http://www.flyingkitemedia.com/features/treephilly0320.aspx&gt;

University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Lab on the Urban Tree Canopies of Philadelphia   -Completed May 18, 2011

Watershed Forestry Resource Guide.  Accessed 01 May. 2012. <http://www.forestsforwatersheds.org/urban-tree-canopy/&gt;

Zalot, Morgan. “Greening Philadelphia Tree by Tree.” PHLMetropolis. 12 Jul. 2010 <http://www.phlmetropolis.com/2010/07/greening-philadelphia-tree-by-tree.php&gt;