Episode 5: Charlotte's Tree Obsession

Feb 5, 2013

Welcome to "A Trifling Place," a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.

Of the seven cities I've lived and worked in, Charlotte has got to be most green. When you're getting ready for an airplane landing, it's like you're descending into a forest. Once you're on the ground, you quickly learn trees are a big part of the city's identity.

In my first few weeks as a reporter at WFAE, my editor assigned a story about how environmentalists and citizens were upset about a state law that allows billboard companies to chop down trees without consulting the city.

My editor said it would be a good introduction to the city because trees are a really big deal in Charlotte. I thought he was making a joke.

So I laughed. Oh nooo, he was being serious. Oops.

Of course over the past few months I've come to realize how holy trees are here and how you sometimes can't even make a joke about them. But I'm sorry, I don’t worship them like it seems the rest of Charlotte does.

Credit Tasnim Shamma

I asked the city arborist Donald McSween if it's just me or if people here seem to take trees a little too seriously. He was probably the wrong person to ask … but he did tell me that Charlotte holds a certain distinction.

"As of right now, Charlotte has the highest canopy tree cover of any major city in the United States," McSween says.

He's always believed this, but a doctoral student's research will soon provide back-up and Charlotte recently made the cut for the 10 best cities for urban forests. According to McSween's research, 46 percent of the city is currently shaded by trees. That's about 180,000 trees. In 2011, city council set a goal of increasing the tree cover to 50 percent by 2050 … an ambitious goal if the population continues to grow at the rate that it has in the past few decades.

McSween says he can't count the number of times people have told him the trees were a big reason for their decision to move to Charlotte. It's certainly a big draw in attracting newcomers. Like Shonda Alcy, who was pushing her toddler in a stroller through uptown. She moved here from Raleigh.

"My husband and I were both shocked at how beautiful the city is, how clean it is, and how well-shaded," Alcy says. "Especially because during the summer it’s pretty hot here. It’s not as dreadful with all the trees."

How did a banking town like Charlotte become a city of tree-huggers?

Well, in the early 1900s, developers of the old street-car suburbs like Myers Park and Dilworth enlisted some of the country's most prominent landscape architects. McSween says their primary recommendation -- was to plant trees.

One of these landscape architects was John Nolen, who was responsible for the design of Independence Park in 1905. He moved trees into the cotton fields of Myers Park. And he planted even more.

But not just any trees: the Willow Oak. 

McSween loves the Willow Oak because it's beautiful, sturdy, grows tall and doesn't have any major diseases. Large, old Willow Oaks dot the city's landscape, especially in the older suburbs. But they are starting to get a little too old and some have start to split apart or get a disease called Root Rot that infects the roots of the trees. So he's quick to react when he sees this. He brings out the ax.

"There have been some that I've said goodbye to," McSween says. "We had one on the corner of Grandville & Queens Road that was the largest street tree I know of in Charlotte and unfortunately it had root rot and we had to remove it."

Whenever this happens, it's a little traumatic.

It all goes back to his childhood in Richmond, Virginia. McSween saw his first tree get chopped down near his grandmother's house at the young age of 12. It was the beginning of his life-long love for trees.

Over the last few decades, he's been working on introducing new species of trees into Charlotte's landscape so that the entire tree population doesn't die off at once, in the event of a fungus, think the American Chestnut. To hear McSween talk, you get the sense that Charlotte is the perfect place to aspire to be the tree capital of America.

"Our climate itself, just kind of lends itself to having trees and landscaping," he says. "Because we're on the border between southern plants and northern plants, so we can have a great variety of plants.

"And I think it just started to become a thing of the community pride. And we don't have a major river flowing through the middle of Charlotte like San Antonio. We don't have major mountains we can see on the horizon like Denver does. But the one major natural resource that we have that is significant to Charlotte is our tree canopy.

"So people say, well, why is that important? And the importance is that … First of all it makes our city more livable and enjoyable. If you go Uptown in the middle of the summer when it's 90 degrees you have large street trees there shading the sidewalks and outdoor restaurant seating that wouldn't be possible if we didn't have our street trees.

"You have other benefits, of course. The biological benefits of oxygen, helping to abate some of the stormwater. And then, there also have been research studies that show that trees and landscaping help the real estate values of neighborhoods. They give them an identity, make the neighborhoods more appealing. So people are willing to spend more in the neighborhoods that have nice trees and landscape."

And to keep up appearances, Charlotte has a really comprehensive tree ordinance. There are even fines for not pruning your tree correctly. This ordinance is really long -- it has over 100 sections.

I asked Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South how long Charlotteans could realistically hug their trees.

"Will Charlotte's enthusiasm for trees last into the future?" Hanchett says. "It's a tricky thing, because if you're developing property, it costs money to leave the trees or plant trees there. We now do have tree ordinances that require a certain amount of tree planning and tree protection to go on. But it's one of those things we need to watch for as we grow."

Oh and if you're wondering, McSween, our city arborist, is a tree hugger. But there are some trees even he won't hug.

"Me: Have you ever hugged a tree? 
McSween: Yeah.
Me: Do you mind hugging …
McSween: I'm not going to hug this one. I don't want to get this stuff all over me."

I have a feeling you may already know what he's talking about. It's a problem that's pretty specific to Charlotte and a problem we'll devote our next podcast to.

Here's a clue. 

McSween: "Die, cankerworm, die!" 

For a by-the-numbers look at Charlotte's trees (and a link to a poem), click here