From the shadowy tree-lined stretch of downtown Ninth Street to the cave-like, forested canopy of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, it isn’t tough to find a patch of shade where you can hide from Columbia’s summer sun.
That shade, offered by Columbia’s trees, is something Mayor Darwin Hindman said he takes great pride in — but he could be prouder.
“While Columbia has a pretty outstanding tree canopy, we’re not rebuilding it the way we should,” he said.
As the annual City Council retreat came to a close on June 9, Hindman announced that he hopes to make it an official policy to preserve and restore Columbia’s native tree canopy, with a particular focus on naturally occurring tree species. He proposed organizing a tree board to include arborists, tree keepers and interested neighbors who would brainstorm ways to patch up weak spots in the city’s tree policy.
Among those weak spots, Hindman said, are zoning laws that don’t limit how many trees some landowners may cut down. Although planned zones require developers to submit landscaping plans, some lots, specifically those zoned for single-family residences, have no restrictions.
The open policy, Hindman said, comes from an outdated idea that single families wouldn’t want to cut trees on their lots.
“What we have found is that doesn’t necessarily hold up,” he said. “The ability to clear land has become more efficient, so a lot of times, where people might have preserved trees, today’s economics of clearing them and clearing the terrain offsets aesthetic value.”
But Don Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council, said developers generally save as many trees as they can and heavily discourage clear-cutting lots.
“Not every tree can be saved, but a developer must approach trying,” Stamper said. “If you look at the aesthetic values, too, making new neighborhoods look like mature neighborhoods, there’s clearly an economic value to the folks buying the homes.”
Hindman said he doesn’t want to stop at preserving trees the city already has; he wants to plant more. He said he hopes to line Broadway downtown with a street-side canopy of trees, creating a shady, natural atmosphere similar to that of Ninth Street.
But before Broadway could be spruced up with new trees, a major hiccup between city departments would need to be fixed. Neither the Parks and Recreation Department nor the Planning and Development Department are in charge of street trees, Hindman said.
Even if a department is assigned responsibility for planting trees on Broadway, growing a green downtown would be costly. Stamper said he wondered who would shoulder the expenses and whether the city could balance planting a downtown canopy with unemployment, affordable housing, public safety and other concerns.
“I think a man-made canopy downtown in an interesting idea,” Stamper said. “But we shouldn’t burn the rest of the town down to make it happen.”
Susan Flader, an American environmental history professor at MU, said that both urban and rural tree canopies can benefit a city in several ways, including curbed erosion rates, energy conservation and reduced use of heating and cooling systems. However, she cautioned that if Columbia plants more trees, it must be ready to maintain them.
“It’s highly desirable to have as much of a tree canopy as possible,” Flader said. “But a lot of cities that manage to plant trees have a lot of die-off.”
The City Council plans to discuss the possibility of a tree board and promoting a tree canopy again by the end of Columbia’s fiscal year, which is Sept. 30.