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Walk down a street in the 9th and 9th neighborhood and the breeze carries an earthy hint from twigs and soil. It can be cool, even on a warm day, with branches and leaves offering welcome shade.
Just a few miles away, on Salt Lake City’s west side, the experience often is different. On too many streets, the sun bakes exposed sidewalks. The heat sticks around, soaked up by dark roofs that get no relief from the light.
Why the disparity? A big reason is trees — lots of them in one area and a lack of them in the other.
“It really makes it almost a different city to live in,” TreeUtah Executive Director Amy May said. The west side seems like it’s been skipped over.
The west side’s tree canopy has long lagged behind the more established east side. It’s an inequity that spurred Mayor Erin Mendenhall to put an added emphasis on planting trees in the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, an initiative that geography, soil science, economics and more prove will be challenging.
Tree cover carries a host of benefits for communities, May said. It improves mental health and lowers rates of skin cancer. Trees filter the air and provide protection from wind and dust storms.
And they keep neighborhoods blessedly cooler during Utah’s sizzling summers.
To experience the benefits of an urban forest, cities need at least 30% canopy cover, May said. Salt Lake City’s west side, she added, is nowhere near that. (The city says industrial areas drive down the percentage of overall canopy cover.)
Why trees die
The city’s own numbers show that growing trees on the west side is harder to do than on the east side.
In 2019, the most recent with numbers, newly planted trees died off at a rate of about 20% on the west side. On the east side, the mortality rate was about 12.5%.
And city officials anticipate that since 2020, when they began blitzing the west side by planting 1,000 new trees a year, the mortality rate will actually be higher.
There are many reasons trees may fail in an urban setting, according to Tony Gliot, the administrator behind the city’s urban forestry efforts. The mortality rate doesn’t necessarily point to missteps on the city’s part.
Sometimes, he said, trees get run over by cars or vandalized by passersby. Sometimes they don’t get enough water. And sometimes they simply don’t take root in their new location.
Still, Gliot is stumped by the west side having a higher tree death rate than the east side but said a slate of factors could create a more challenging environment for expanding the canopy.
There are fewer automatically irrigated parking strips and front yards on the west side, he said, so watering in many cases must be done by bucket, watering bags or hose, which can be more difficult.
It’s also possible, he said, that landscape watering in general is not as much of a priority as elsewhere. And the watering that does take place, he said, may be less beneficial to plants because the area is less shady than more established east-side neighborhoods.
It could be that the cost of watering may be seen as prohibitive, though the city says the price tag amounts to $2.59 a year.
“We also may have some soil condition issues in certain areas of the west side that don’t exist on the east side,” Gliot said. “So there are environmental factors that are beyond people’s control that can contribute to it being a more difficult growing condition.”
That’s where soil particle size comes into play, according to Jaydee Gunnell, professor of horticulture for Utah State University Extension.
As soils transition from the mountains and the foothills down to the valley, he said, the particles in the soil get smaller, meaning reduced absorption of water. Clays found in the valley floor simply make it harder for water to get to tree roots.
“You end up with a lot of puddling,” Gunnell said, “but the soil underneath is dry.”
A shifting approach to planting
Even so, Gliot said, the challenges of planting trees on the west side can be overcome.
Urban forestry officials try to be choosy in what they plant, selecting trees that have shown they can handle growing with less water or in less-than-ideal soil. Gliot said the city focuses on planting trees such as hybrid elms, honeylocusts, crab apples and oaks to expand the west-side canopy.
Crews also are being more aggressive with the number of trees they’re putting down.
Salt Lake City’s approach to planting trees shifted in 2020, the same year Mendenhall announced an initiative to plant 1,000 trees a year on the west side. Instead of planting them exclusively by request or to replace trees that were removed, the city began installing them widely.
Now, residents need to opt out after receiving a notice that the city would plant trees in their neighborhood. It’s an approach that Gliot said will likely result in a higher mortality rate than was reported in 2019.
“Quite naturally,” he said, “more trees will receive insufficient care when you are proactively planting.”
Still, he said, the city tries to set residents up for success. Officials provide watering bags and instructions in English and Spanish, and this year began distributing calendars that told residents each day they should be watering their trees.
Poplar Grove resident Lindsay Starke requested two trees a couple of years ago after seeing a watering bag in front of a neighbor’s home. She said she’s received all the information and equipment she needs to care for her trees, but has noticed elsewhere that new trees aren’t receiving watering bags.
“It’s an awesome program,” Starke said. “I just think they’re not necessarily great at advertising for it.”
When James Belcher moved into his Rose Park home, a decrepit young tree already occupied his parking strip. By 2020, the city cut down the old tree, planted a new one and provided a bucket with watering instructions.
“The new tree that they planted ended up dying,” he said, “even though I was watering it.”
He suspects the old stump was competing with the new sapling for water.
“People have two or three jobs in my part of town’
First-year City Council member Alejandro Puy said residents, in some cases, didn’t know how to care for their trees, didn’t receive a watering bag, or simply didn’t understand the importance of caring for them.
Puy lauded the Mendenhall administration’s efforts in making the west side greener but said there needs to be a better understanding of the community he represents.
“People have two or three jobs in my part of town,” he said. “They have issues taking care of their kids. They need child care, and they’re running around trying to keep their lives together.”
So he’s pushing to get extra money set aside for an educational campaign and more resources to help those who have trees in front of their homes.
“I’m not trying to find anybody to blame,” he said. “I think it is a great idea. We just need to take it to the next level.”
Even if trees are perishing at a higher rate, Gliot said, the overall number of trees that will survive under Mendenhall’s aggressive planting initiative will be higher than in the past.
To make the new trees as successful as they can be, the city’s Urban Forestry Division is working to trim that mortality rate by focusing on planting where it’s apparent that the trees will get the care they need. That means more trees going in city parks, next to neighborhoods on golf course perimeters, and in front of schools.
City officials also are encouraging community councils to take ownership of new trees that they want in their communities.
“It’s really the only way we can have long-term success,” Gliot said, “with growing more canopy in areas that just don’t have as much.”
Then, in decades to come, that summer stroll in Glendale or Poplar Grove or Fairpark or Rose Park will be just as cool, just as pleasant, just as comfortable as an afternoon jaunt anywhere in the city.
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