Cities and utility companies spend a lot of money maintaining the infrastructure that keeps cars moving, homes lit and water running through pipes and storm drains.
But there’s good reason to put just as much energy into maintaining another key piece of urban infrastructure: trees.
Trees in cities can help clean the air, manage storm water, absorb noise, reduce energy use and provide a scenic backdrop that can translate to economic gain for a locality.
But, as with anything that happens in a tight urban setting, keeping urban trees healthy takes some careful planning and special attention.
“There are lots of people, lots of infrastructure, and so therefore there are lots of potential issues with conflicts for space,” said Eric Wiseman, a professor of urban forestry at Virginia Tech.
One area where these conflicts often flare up is in the battle for space between street trees and power lines.
Drive around most any American town and you can spot large trees with hollowed-out or hacked-up canopies that have been cut by utility companies to avoid their lines.
In a bad storm, a fallen tree on a power line is often the reason a neighborhood loses power.
But these conflicts are avoidable, says Wiseman, and his department at Virginia Tech helps maintain a network of resources around the state aimed at helping localities choose the right trees to plant under and near utility lines, so the trees can thrive without threatening important infrastructure.
Look Up, Virginia!, a consortium of arborists, utility companies and urban foresters around the state, has put together a collection of resources for urban tree-planting decision-makers. One of the most visible and tangible of those is a network of five arboreta in different cities around the state that house examples of trees suitable for planting under utility lines.
At Virginia Tech, Wiseman is using Plants Map to help spread the word about these arboreta, and to allow those who visit them to use Plants Map’s interactive plant signs and tags to access information on each tree species.
The project is still a work in progress—a graduate student is working to populate the site with data from arboreta in Abingdon, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville and Lynchurg. Currently, the Hahn Arboretum collection of utility-friendly trees on the Virginia Tech campus can be found on Plants Map.
Seeing pictures of trees such as the Toba hawthorn, the paper birch and the Beethoven Amur maplecan help local public works officials or beautification commissions see what trees might be the right fit for their community. But Wiseman sees more possibilities in the site.
“What’s particularly compelling for me is having the physical tags on the trees in the field so people can use mobile devices to scan the QR codes,” he said. “It’s one thing to see them, but it’s a whole other thing to be able to discover something about the species through a mobile device.”
In addition to information on utility-friendly trees, Wiseman oversees another program that helps people to appreciate the important role trees can play in our daily lives and landscapes.
The Virginia Big Tree Program, which Wiseman has overseen since 2013, is a database that lists the top five trees of each species known to exist in Virginia, based on the observations and measurements of a team of volunteers around the state.
Anyone can visit the website to learn how to nominate a tree, or to help re-measure trees already in the database, a process that must happen every 10 years.
The mapping capabilities available on Plants Map have allowed the Virginia Big Tree Program to display its database in a new and visual format. A map of Virginia is peppered with green dots that represent trees of note, making it easy to plan a visit to see one of these remarkable specimens.
And making that connection, Wiseman says, can help foster a greater appreciation for the gifts trees have to give.
“We so rarely encounter truly gigantic trees in our lives because of where we live,” he said. “Being able to identify what these trees are and where they are and to facilitate people being able to visit them gives people a greater appreciation for what these trees can be when they are given enough room and enough care to completely and fully develop.”
If seeing these large, thriving trees, inspires property owners or municipalities to think more about their ability to have a long-term impact on the landscape around them, then maybe that will lead to more thoughtful choices of trees in urban environments.
Decades from now, today’s thoughtful planting choices could become the mature trees that help transform a city’s identity.