New York and Chicago have towering skyscrapers. San Francisco has classic Victorian houses. Here in Portland, we have trees. From mammoth Douglas-firs to an impressive, multispecies roster of Heritage Trees all over the city, Portland is a dendrophile’s paradise—at least, that has long been the city’s narrative.
Portland’s lush tree canopy isn’t distributed equally across all neighborhoods, however, and the city’s existing trees are struggling. As the effects of climate change worsen, summers in the Pacific Northwest are becoming hotter and drier—creating harsher conditions for tree survival while also highlighting their importance.
After several scorching heat waves revealed just how important trees are for keeping Portlanders cool, several city bureaus have come out with new plans to increase “shade equity” across the city. Street trees are a major component of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s (PBOT) projects on 122nd and 82nd Avenues, for example, and the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) will invest $40 million in equitable tree canopy coverage over the next five years.
Despite those promises, the city has struggled to keep already-planted trees alive. Inter-bureau power struggles and a warming climate have both made it more difficult for Portland’s tree canopy to thrive as it used to. As the importance of a robust tree canopy becomes more and more clear, many Portlanders are calling on the city to act.
The importance of “shade equity”
Portland environmental experts and advocates point to trees as one of the best solutions for both climate action and mitigation. When planted properly, trees can offset carbon emissions, using polluting greenhouse gas to grow and purify the surrounding air. In addition, a thriving tree canopy will bring down hot surface temperatures significantly, making it bearable to go outside when the thermometer hits 90 degrees or higher.
But Portland’s tree canopy is more dense in some neighborhoods than others, leaving areas with little shade more vulnerable during extreme heat.
During the record-shattering heat dome in June 2021, researchers found major temperature disparities between different parts of the city. In some Portland neighborhoods—notably lower-income areas east of I-205—the air temperature spiked to 124 degrees, while wealthier parts of the city closer to the river didn’t break 100. One of the main differences between the neighborhoods? Tree canopy coverage.
Transportation planners and advocates also point out that shade impacts people’s commutes through the city. Many of Portland’s best greenways—where non-motor vehicle traffic is prioritized for travel—are shrouded in leaves, keeping people biking, walking, and rolling cool on hot summer days.
In parts of Portland where concrete dominates the streets, the lack of canopy coverage makes it less comfortable to get around without a car. That’s one reason PBOT has prioritized planting trees as part of its upcoming capital construction projects in East Portland.
“[Trees] make everything about transportation easier. We know when our sidewalks are better shaded, people feel more comfortable walking down the street on the sidewalk,” PBOT Communications Director Hannah Schafer told the Mercury. “It's about the heat island effect, but it's also about making mobility more pleasant throughout the city.”
PBOT is also working on a project that will replace curb parking spots with trees, adding much-needed green space to parts of the city lacking canopy coverage. But it will be important for the trees which get planted to be able to survive.
Who’s responsible for the trees?
When news broke that several newly-planted trees in East Portland died after the city failed to water them properly, Portlanders were outraged. In an email to the Mercury, East Portland resident Ray Johnson said he’d reached out to the Portland Urban Forestry Commission alerting them about dying trees on Southeast Morrison Court between 102nd and 103rd Avenues. While he received a response from the Urban Forestry team “promising to take care of it,” they never did.
“[Commissioner Dan Ryan] has talked about how important trees are in East Portland. He specifically mentioned how we need to plant them and then take care of them,” Johnson wrote. “So it seems really odd that the city won’t water those trees.”
While Ryan is the commissioner in charge of Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R), which oversees Urban Forestry, the trees Johnson flagged were actually planted by PBOT. PBOT says tree maintenance methods that worked in the past aren’t cutting it anymore.
“Our climate is getting hotter really fast,” Schafer, PBOT’s communications director, said. “We’re having conversations about the trees we want to put in, and we're thinking a little differently because we've learned some hard lessons along the way… we’re not in the business of planting trees for them to die. We want to plant trees and have them grow, and we want to expand our canopy just like all Portlanders do.”
Typically, when the city plants trees, city workers are responsible for watering them for a two-year period before the trees become the responsibility of the adjacent property owner. Given Portland’s changing climate, Schafer said the city may need to extend that initial watering period.
Yashar Vasef, the executive director of Oregon nonprofit Friends of Trees, echoed Schafer’s comments. He said his organization is working on extending its standard three-year tree care model to five years of “watering, summer monitoring, and periodical tree pruning,” especially for trees planted in the public right-of-way.
“Funders love paying for tree planting because it’s sexy, but too often we lack funding commitments when the conversation shifts to ensuring tree establishment and survival,” Vasef wrote in a statement to the Mercury. “I believe policymakers and funders need to prioritize tree maintenance on equal footing with tree planting.”
Until recently, Friends of Trees was contracted with the city of Portland to plant and maintain tens of thousands of trees annually. But in the spring of 2022, the city opted to cut ties with the nonprofit. An extensive Oregon Public Broadcasting investigation revealed a “yearslong power struggle” between the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) and PP&R over which bureau would be responsible for Portland’s trees, ultimately dooming their relationship with Friends of Trees.
Vasef said Friends of Trees staffers “still often interface with the city of Portland and continue to be aligned in the urgency of addressing canopy loss.”
“That said, I continue to believe we’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation, where every level of society should be engaged in the stewardship of our urban canopy in order to ensure that we both grow the canopy and maintain existing trees that are so vital to public health,” Vasef said, noting the city should tap into the “thousands of energized volunteers as vital capacity-building resources.”
Other Portlanders have spoken out about how difficult it is to get in touch with the city regarding trees in their neighborhoods.
Earlier this summer, Sarah Shay Mirk (a former Mercury staffer), saw a tree removal notice outside their home in Kenton. Mirk said they knew PBOT was planning to construct a sidewalk nearby, but city staffers gave the impression no trees would be lost. But one morning, city contractors arrived outside Mirk’s home with chainsaws. After some “Hail Mary desperate phone calls” to the city didn’t work, all they could do was watch as the tree was removed.
“It was horrible. I just sat on my front porch and watched. It only took 20 minutes to cut down a tree that had been there for 30 or 40 years,” Mirk said. “The tree was really healthy. It was a home to birds and squirrels and it provided a lot of shade for the street, and it was just gone. The whole time, I was thinking, ‘there’s no way to undo this.’ They’re going to plant a new tree somewhere on the street, but that’s not a replacement.”
The future of Portland’s trees
Much of the strife with managing Portland’s trees appears to stem from the city’s current tree management system.
Tyler Gilmore, a volunteer co-lead with environmental non-profit 350 PDX’s Forest Defense Team, said he thinks it’s inequitable that the burden of street tree maintenance has been placed on adjacent residents. If people in low-income neighborhoods, which have historically lacked tree canopy, need to take care of the trees planted outside their homes, they may experience further economic instability. They might also simply turn down the city’s offer to plant a tree outside their house.
“When you start giving low-income neighborhoods trees, you’re actually saddling [residents] with the financial burden of maintaining them,” Gilmore told the Mercury. “One of our big focuses has been trying to get the city to take on the payment for the maintenance of street trees.”
Gilmore said he thinks the city should think of street trees as public infrastructure, just like streets, and maintain them as such.
But Vasef said he thinks there’s still some value in having community members involved in tree planting and care. He said Friends of Trees’ approach, which centers on volunteerism and community tree education, works because it “produces an extra layer of community stewardship and protection for those trees planted by volunteers.”
“These trees are often sentimental and volunteers can become invested in seeing them healthily mature over the years. This includes voluntarily watering them during summers,” Vasef said. “The city and Friends of Trees can’t be everywhere, but there are thousands of Portlanders who adore trees and are anxiously waiting to be activated by local governmental funders and nonprofit partners. I think the question is are we valuing and steering them as a resource? If not, let’s right this ship.”