Driving around the byways of Tacoma can yield all kinds of unexpected moments, especially in the many diverse neighborhoods around town. It’s particularly gratifying when it’s obvious that residents care for their streets, taking on beautification projects and working to repel urban deterioration that can so easily take hold. This is why the City of Tacoma’s Grit City Trees program is so important, as it offers an easy way for neighbors to work together for a greener, more attractive – and safer – place to call home.
Grit City Trees provides free trees to Tacoma homeowners for planting in the right-of-way to increase tree canopy, impact traffic flow and beautify neighborhoods for years to come. Sarah Low, management analyst at Environmental Services for the City of Tacoma, is a certified arborist who helps to lead the program. She said that more than 180 people applied with the Grit City Trees program this past fall, resulting in nearly 500 trees distributed among community members throughout Tacoma.
“We got so many more applications than we expected. It has been exciting to see how well received this program has been, and how much it feels like a partnership between our office and residents of Tacoma and the nurseries,” she said. “I’m really wanting to make sure that the program is available to people throughout the city as much as possible.”
While Grit City Trees has been underway for the past few years, things were changed up a bit this year to make it easier to participate. The application process was opened in July to give residents about a month and half to work through it, including choosing from a list of 10 trees or so for the variety that would be suitable for each individual right-of-way situation, such as to avoid planting taller-growing trees in areas where there are power lines overhead. Smaller shade trees and evergreens are commonly used in the program.
Trees are planted in the fall to maximize growing conditions. “We plant in the fall in part because we have drought conditions over the summer so it’s better for the trees to be planted earlier,” Low said. “This gives the trees a longer time to establish. In the springtime we start seeing that we aren’t getting a lot of rain so this is the responsibility of the homeowners to water the trees at this critical time.”
Another big plus about the program is in how it brings communities together, as neighbors are encouraged to work with neighbors to apply for trees as a group. This was the approach that Lincoln neighborhood resident Ricky Clousing took. In the fall, he and his neighbors planted 22 trees – three varieties on seven different properties, with 15 trees planted at the intersection of South 37th Street and Sheridan Avenue.
For Clousing and his neighbors, trees became a tool for creating safer, more walkable streets. “I live near the intersection we planted, which happens to be a designated walking route for students and also a bike boulevard,” he said. “Street trees help to create more natural and human scale spaces. They also reduce traffic speeds by enclosing the roadway, causing drivers to slow down at intersections. This is known as the edge effect.”
He said the whole process was a lot of fun for everyone. “We spent two Saturdays planting trees, connecting with neighbors, and teaching our kids about civic engagement. It was a cool chance to build community through place-making.”
Clousing explained that at first he was hoping that a couple of neighbors would get involved, but then he began thinking more strategically to bring more neighbors on board.
“I knew that a new family with kids just moved into a house on the corner, so they’d be interested. One neighbor liked the idea but is elderly and couldn’t plant four new trees, so I volunteered. Across the street, a vacant home was being remodeled so I spoke to the owners and convinced them that trees would increase the property value. Another home was owned by the First Nazarene Church, so I contacted their pastor. Once I told him about our project, he was really excited to be involved.”
In addition to providing trees, the city gives bags of TAGRO and stakes with which to secure the young trees. Instructions are also provided, including directions to call 811 before digging to ensure that utilities are marked.
As Clousing described it, “The application explains how the program works and gives you all the information you need to know. They make it pretty easy. Included were instructions on planting, a list of trees to choose from based on the size and location of the planting strip, tree placement standards for the right-of-way (in order to protect vehicle sight distance), and a tree care agreement form for the homeowner to sign. Once the applications were submitted and reviewed, the trees were delivered approximately two months later.”
While it may seem like fall 2019 is a long way off for another round of Grit City Trees planting, the time to start planning is now, according to Low. “People should start talking to their neighbors now. It takes time for people to talk to each other, to figure out what kinds of trees they want that are appropriate for the whole neighborhood, and to figure out who the contact person is for the (trees) drop off.”
To learn how your neighborhood can get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (253) 591-5213.
Tacoma residents are also invited to participate in the city’s tree coupon program to get discounted trees for their private property at select local tree retailers. Visit www.cityoftacoma.org/treecoupons.