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Worcester combats 'urban heat islands' with master plan draft - Worcester Telegram

Worcester combats ‘urban heat islands’ with master plan draft – Worcester Telegram

Sigel Street in the Green Island neighborhood has almost no mature tree cover for shade in an Aug. 26, 2021, file photo.

WORCESTER – Will Worcester neighborhoods suffering with the hottest temperatures get their fair share of trees to not only cool things off but also help fight off the negative effects of climate change? 

It’s a question to consider as the city released a draft of the Urban Forestry Master Plan, the first time Worcester is creating a comprehensive blueprint to keep its public trees – many located in spaces along roads and streets – healthy, resilient and sustainable.

The master plan included input from city departments, an inventory of city-owned trees along roads and streets done by Davey Resource Group Inc., and community input.

The effort comes as climate change becomes a greater environmental threat. Trees mitigate high temperatures and suck in carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming, and their roots take in water that helps lessen the impacts of higher flood risks from climate change.

The plan calls for a more even distribution of trees across the city, especially in the Green Island neighborhood, an area in Worcester’s inner core identified as a so-called “urban heat island.”  

Research published this spring by Clark University students on the urban heat island effect in Worcester includes a map of the city showing differences in temperatures.

Heat islands have an abundance of concrete that captures and retains heat, with few shade trees to bring temperatures down. Prior studies by a consultant and Clark University showed temperatures up to 10 degrees hotter on some summer days in Green Island, compared to other parts of Worcester with more tree cover. 

More info needed?

The master plan draft proposed more study before trees are potentially planted in hot spots like Green Island, an idea that isn’t supported by District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera.

“You don’t need a study to know we need trees in Green Island. Waiting (to plant trees) makes no sense,” said Rivera, who noted the city took down trees in parts of her district years ago because they were damaged or their roots were buckling sidewalks. They were never replaced, she said.

A heat risk assessment completed earlier this year by a consultant hired by the city said Worcester needed to plant 34,000 trees so that half the city would achieve adequate tree cover when the trees mature in up to 20 years. That study identified Green Island and neighborhoods next to it as the highest priority for planting because of the heat island effect.

One tree at the front end of Ashmont Avenue in Worcester's Green Island neighborhood.

However, the draft report said a more comprehensive urban tree canopy assessment is needed to give a detailed and accurate picture of the city’s urban forest.

That assessment would be done in 2025, according to the report, using high-resolution aerial imagery along with environmental and census data to measure Worcester’s current and historic canopy cover. It also includes quantifying the canopy’s environmental benefits, and prioritizing areas for tree planting, preservation and care. 

Additional steps include creating an action plan and developing partnerships with neighborhood residents and property owners that could drag out the plantings to 2027 or beyond. 

No need for more studies

The city’s Urban Forestry Tree Commission will hear a report on the draft Wednesday, and commission member Alexander Elton believes the city likely doesn’t need more studies before starting tree work in Green Island. 

Elton works as the city’s forester in Providence and is the director of that city’s Forestry Division. He noted additional information the city wants is likely available from the American Forests Tree Equity Score. The online tool is free and measures if there are enough trees in neighborhoods nationwide. 

Equity scores are based on tree canopy, surface temperature, income, employment, race, age and health factors. 

One tree at the far end of Sigel Street in Green Island.

It’s noted in the master plan that the equity score was used in the earlier heat risk assessment.

“My initial question is how does an additional assessment differ from (the equity score) that already provides (this information),” said Elton. 

As Elton sees it, the city can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” meaning it can look for places to plant trees in heat-island neighborhoods like Green Island while it generates another report. 

“You don’t have to pause for a year, waiting for an assessment. There are opportunities now to improve the tree canopy. You can do both.” 

Gives complete picture

Robert Antonelli, assistant commissioner of parks and recreation and Worcester’s tree warden, explained the assessment will give a complete picture of what can be done in Green Island before resources are committed. 

In a file photo, Robert Antonelli speaks in Elm Park on Arbor Day, April 30, 2021 as three new trees are planted.

Space is a major obstacle in the city’s urban core, said Antonelli, as streets in those areas are extremely narrow, and configurations of sidewalks and public spaces can be problematic for planting trees. 

Private property could be the answer, in some cases. 

“We understand in some cases you can’t plant in the public right of way,” said Antonelli. “Maybe there are places to plant on private property to offset instability in the public right of way…We need to move forward in the right manner. Right tree, right place.” 

Clock is ticking

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. 

Worcester has until June 1 to apply for a share of $1.5 billion in the federal Inflation Reduction Act for urban communities to boost their tree canopy cover. Last week, the City Council voted to support the city applying for those funds, said Rivera.

As Antonelli understands it, grants run from $100,000 to $50 million. He plans to have discussions with City Manager Eric Batista and Commissioner of Public Works and Parks Jay Fink about how the city moves ahead to apply for the funds. 

The number of trees ultimately planted is unclear in the draft report. It identified 8,494 spots in Worcester to plant trees, and Antonelli thinks a more realistic number is half that number when all factors are taken into account, including underground infrastructure that could obstruct planting. 

The total cost of planting roughly 4,000 trees is also unclear. Antonelli previously stated each tree cost the city at least $550. That translates to a total price tag of $2.2 million. 

Meanwhile, a limited number of trees will be planted in Worcester in May, said a city spokesman. That work is unrelated to the draft plan, and paid for by $300,000 that Batista committed from the city’s free cash account. The city is determining the number of trees and where they will be planted.

Batista’s office said months ago the plantings will focus on low-income areas and communities of color.

More draft details

Some notable highlights in the draft report: 

● Worcester has 23,137 street trees and 772 stumps along roads and streets. 

● Current tree canopy covers 37% of the city.  

● Worcester’s forestry budget in fiscal 2022 was $1.6 million. The draft plan requests an additional $500,000 yearly to set management cost per tree at $80.77 for cities with populations the size of Worcester’s.

Contact Henry Schwan at Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram


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