Hannah Fleck, PE, LEED AP BD+C | Civil Engineer & Sustainability Lead
There's a Chinese proverb that asks when's the best time to plant a tree.
The answer: 20 years ago
I came across this reading The Overstory by Richard Powers on the same day I spoke with Bill Kincius, Manager of Urban Forestry within the Department of Public Works for the City of Indianapolis. The proverb seemed to fit Bill's overall message which was that while a tree can easily be removed, the real benefits that trees provide don't start having a significant impact until 7 to 10 years into their life cycle. The following is a summary of my conversation with Bill that took place December 02, 2020.
I asked Bill to describe his work as the Manager of Urban Forestry. He said his department's primary responsibility is to balance risk management associated with potential damage caused by trees and the protection of a natural resource that offers many ecosystem services to humans. This balancing act is performed by fielding complaints filed with the Mayor's Action Center and other forms of communication including an App called RequestIndy.
The protection of our urban tree canopy in the public right-of-way and public parks is regulated through the Municipal Code of Indianapolis-Marion County which protects flora in public spaces and has been in place since 1975. Any work in the right-of-way or public parks has to be reviewed through a Flora Permit reviewed by the Department of Bureau and Neighborhood Services (BNS) to ensure that tree removal, trimming, and mitigation are done according to the ordinance.
Bill emphasized that tree work is technical and shouldn't be done by inexperienced tree workers. Noting while most anyone can purchase a chainsaw there is a lack of understanding about the complexity of a tree's anatomy. The lack of understanding is problematic for people who are trying to maintain their own trees and also for designers who are working with and around trees on land development projects.
Designers have a few easy opportunities that can really make a difference in the fight to save our urban canopy:
I asked Bill about the benefits or ecosystem services that trees provide to our communities. He said that a big one for Indianapolis is storm water management. A study was performed several years ago that quantified those benefits. He said that the street trees of Indianapolis intercepted 0.5 billion gallons of runoff per year! Those are some hardworking trees. Trees also improve our air quality and increase property values.
We are losing our urban canopy at increasing rates as human activity chews deeper into the natural resources of our state. While the emerald ash borer has made a dent in the canopy by a significant amount humans still are the biggest threat to the trees.
While public trees are protected by the City’s Flora Ordinance, the protection of many of the private trees of Indianapolis is enacted through the Heritage Tree development standard. Bill says those trees are part of Indiana's natural history and are protected by the zoning standards for private property that were adopted in 2014. The Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD) enforces this standard which states that trees of a diameter greater than 18" and of certain species cannot be removed unless absolutely necessary and only if there are additional mitigation measures that must be put into place.
Finally, I asked Bill if he had an artificial or real Christmas tree. He said he's been pulling out the same artificial one for years and hopes to for years to come. If you do purchase a fresh cut tree they can be disposed of in select city parks from December 26-January 31, where they will eventually be turned to mulch.
Visit indy.gov/activity/christmas-tree-disposal to learn more.