The City of East Lansing is looking to add trees to right-of-ways around the city, especially in areas where trees were previously removed.
Death, disease and safety issues are the main reasons trees are removed, city Environmental Specialist Cliff Walls explained to ELi via email.
The right-of-way next to a home is usually the parkway, which is the space between the curb and the sidewalk. However, homes without sidewalks are not disqualified from being considered for a tree planting. Walls explained a right-of-way still exists when there is no parkway and that the depth of a right-of-way can extend beyond the sidewalk.
“There is no standard depth of the right-of-way,” Walls said. “It is variable across the city, though residents can view the Ingham County Equalization map or Clinton County Online Mapper for an idea of where their property line ends and the public right-of-way begins.”
Trees in urban areas face more challenges than those in forests. Walls said the surrounding infrastructure can lead to trees not receiving enough water or nutrients, which can shorten a tree’s lifespan.
“While an oak tree may live up to 600 years in ideal conditions, the USDA reports that the average lifespan of an urban tree is around 19 to 28 years,” he said. “It is hard to predict when and where a mature tree will begin dying off, so it’s important that we replace trees as they expire in order to maintain and grow the overall canopy.”
The city hopes to partner with residents who would like to help care for the trees planted near their properties. Walls said sometimes when the city plans to plant a tree in a parkway, residents living nearby oppose the planting – largely because of increased raking responsibilities. Planting near willing residents benefits the city.
“We know that trees do better where they have an enthusiastic neighbor who wants to see it mature, can volunteer to help water it during drought and communicate tree health concerns to the city if needed,” Walls said. “We are exploring ways to better engage the community on trees, communicate tree benefits to adjacent property owners, and plant trees that meet both the goals of the city and those who will be living or working near them.”
Walls said he is an East Lansing resident and uses a rain barrel to help maintain plants near his home. He recommends residents with trees planted near their property do the same.
There are many benefits to having trees near a home, Walls explained. In addition to contributing to East Lansing’s aesthetic, trees can reduce air conditioning costs by providing shade, serve as windbreakers that reduce heating bills and increase property values.
Trees also play an important role in reducing flooding – a major issue in recent years for some homeowners. Walls said trees absorb rain water and tree roots loosen soil, which increases infiltration of runoff water. Above ground, tree canopies slow rainfall velocities, and capture and store some rain water.
“Trees alone cannot address the threat of urban flooding,” Walls said. “But they are a crucially important component of any stormwater management strategy.”
Walls said the city prefers to plant native species, but sometimes non-native trees are better suited for some areas. In 2022, there were a variety of trees planted including Linden trees, Redbuds, London planes and more. The list of approved tree species in East Lansing, along with their status of native or non-native, can be viewed here.
Tree plantings are carefully selected based on the area a tree is being planted and advice from arborists. For example, it was decided not to plant maple trees last year because they already make up over half of East Lansing’s canopy. This lack of biodiversity could leave the city vulnerable to a devastating loss of trees if a disease or blight disproportionately harms maple trees.
In addition to having trees planted in parkways, Walls encourages residents to explore the possibility of planting trees on their own private property.
“East Lansing’s Urban Tree Canopy Assessment considered the city as a whole, and specifically mentions that maximum canopy potentials can only be achieved with the involvement of private property owners,” Walls said. “Most of the land in the city is privately owned, so trees along the streets and in the parkways are only part of the equation. We strongly encourage residents and business owners to plant on their property as well to help reach the broader goals of the community.”
To help residents plan a planting, Walls recommends using the U.S. Forest Service’s I-Tree Design Tool. The tool allows users to plot a potential tree location on a map of their property, select sizes and species, and estimate future species-specific canopy growth over the years. This can help show how a tree will interfere with buildings and other infrastructure as it grows. The tool can also show projected impacts on stormwater, carbon, pollution and energy savings.
Looking ahead, there are a couple of developments that have Walls excited about the future of urban forestry in East Lansing.
Recently, the city was notified it has been awarded a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Urban and Community Forestry grant to develop a tree “Standards of Practice” document that provides best practices for city tree standards. This guide will be used by contractors, staff and property owners to clarify tree rules.
Additionally, the city is working with the MSU Forestry program to involve students in a downtown tree planting effort. While the details of the program are still developing, there are plans to work with students over the spring semester, which started in January. Forestry students will conduct an inventory and assess trees in the downtown area, engage with residents and property owners to craft an urban tree vision, and develop tree planting and management recommendations.