Energy & Environment

Potted trees bring life to a Burlington street that’s too crowded for planting 

A person walks past a potted tree on North Street in Burlington on Tuesday, July 12. Photo by Ella Ruehsen/VTDigger

This summer is the second for a potted plant pilot project on North Street in Burlington, which aims to bring greenery to a hot and crowded stretch of road.

About half of Burlington’s milelong North Street has a lack of trees — from about where the street meets North Winooski Avenue all the way to where it ends at North Avenue. Residents along that route experience higher poverty rates than the city’s average, according to U.S. Census Tract 3

“There's no green strip between the sidewalk and the road, so there's no way to plant trees unless you cut out a square out of the sidewalk, and that just does not work,” Burlington City Arborist VJ Comai said. 

In an effort to ease the greenery shortage, the city government bought 10 planters a year ago, using grant money from the National Arbor Day Foundation and assistance from a volunteer group, Branch Out Burlington. 

“If ever there was a street that needed shade and trees, it's North Street,” said Margaret Skinner, president of Branch Out Burlington. “This is an experiment that we're trying. And the reason we're doing it is because it's been a dilemma. What do you do about trying to bring trees to that area? It’s hard to keep them alive.” 

Last summer and this, Comai and Skinner have been placing small trees and flowers in planters and stationing them along North Street, where they remain until fall.

Because the young trees would not be able to survive through winter in planters, the city removes them from North Street in the fall and plants them along other streets where there’s space. The following spring, they put out new potted trees along North Street. 

“It's just a way to provide some greenery to an otherwise pretty barren stretch of road,” Comai said. 

Skinner said the original plan was to use trees from the tree nursery she manages at the University of Vermont, but last summer, that did not work as well as they had hoped. It was a hot summer, and the planters arrived a bit late. 

This summer, they used trees from a different commercial nursery, which grew trees a little bit bigger than the UVM nursery might have grown on its own, Skinner said. She and Comai are already seeing improved results. 

Economic and environmental equity 

“You can really see when you drive around Burlington, the issue of economic equity. You look at North Street, and you can see there's no greenbelt, there's very few trees, so it's very hot and very dry and very sunny and not as pleasant a place to be,” Skinner said. “This is just a way that we can try and equal the playing field.” 

U.S. Census Tract 3, which contains the northern side of North Street and encapsulates most of the Old North End, has a poverty rate about 10% higher than the Burlington average and more than double that of Chittenden County as a whole, according to the census. 

A potted tree sits on the side of North Street. Photo by Ella Ruehsen/VTDigger

Median household income in that area is about three-quarters of the median level in Burlington and about half the median for the county.

But the effort to increase greenbelt equity in the underserved area can only do so much. The baby trees in their planters are “never going to provide any shade to speak of or stormwater mitigation,” Comai said. “They're simply for aesthetics and a way to green up that part of the community a little bit.” 

The potted trees are also not abundant on the whole stretch of the street, he said, as the city had to leave room to ensure signs are visible and there’s enough clearance at intersections. 

Where the canopy is sparse 

Comai said he does not prioritize certain parts of Burlington over others based on income levels, however, he has been prioritizing areas that previously had the lowest percentage of canopy coverage. To some degree, the two standards correlate.

To evaluate Burlington’s canopy coverage, Comai refers to a set of University of Vermont spatial analysis overhead studies. 

The studies used lidar technology to map out how much of Burlington’s total land mass had tree canopy coverage when viewed from above, Comai said. The first study was conducted about 12 years ago and the second about two years ago. 

The two studies show the city has increased its canopy by 4% over the past decade, which Comai said is “pretty remarkable.” 

According to the studies, Wards 2 and 3 have the least canopy coverage of all the wards in the city. Those two wards contain the bulk of the downtown core and the Old North End. 

The downtown core has a lot of commercial buildings and parking lots, which is why it lacks significant amounts of green space and places to plant trees, Comai said. The Old North End neighborhoods are crowded, too, despite being largely residential. 

“The houses are very, very close together,” he said. “The lots tend to be very small, so there's not a lot of trees on private properties compared to, say, the South End or the New North End, where you have bigger houses, bigger lots, more private trees, more wooded areas.” 

For those reasons, Comai systematically identifies and targets tree-planting sites along all the streets in those two wards. 

Rapidly changing urban landscapes  

While giving greater attention to Wards 2 and 3, Burlington has continued its planting campaign in other parts of the city.

“We lose a lot of trees in any given year,” Comai said. “That's just a fact of life in an urban forest. We have vehicle collisions. We have infrastructure work or new water lines, new sidewalks. Trees get compromised. We have storm damage. We have just natural attrition. Trees die due to a tough environment.”

A potted tree sits on the side of North Street. Photo by Ella Ruehsen/VTDigger

Comai said that, for a while, the tree-planting was barely keeping up with the number of trees removed in any given year — and the goal, as part of Burlington’s Climate Action Plan, is to continue to increase the overall canopy coverage in the city. 

“Trees are important for all their environmental benefits, so we really thought we needed to up our game,” Comai said. 

Keeping that in mind, as well as the fact that the emerald ash borer has been threatening Vermont’s ash trees since 2018, the city stepped up its planting efforts in 2019. 

“We know it's gonna get here. We have a lot of ash in the city, and we're not going to treat them with chemicals to keep them alive,” Comai said. “So we're going to eventually lose them.” A borer infestation has a kill rate of nearly 100%.

Community appreciation 

Skinner hopes to get more North Street residents informally involved in the planter project as time goes on, she said. 

Earlier this summer, Skinner happened upon a woman who, at the time, worked at JR’s Corner Store on North Street. The woman took a special liking to a particular tree and told Skinner she would keep an eye on it. 

“We need more people like that,” Skinner said. “She’s just a really nice person, and it really makes a difference to me that someone realizes that there's a tree out there and it needs some tender loving care. And she can do it because she's right there.” 

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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