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Northeast Ohio tries to regain its shade, sometimes one tree at a time

Volunteers plant trees on the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Properties in 2021 as part of Holden Forest and Gardens' People for Trees campaign.
Holden Forest and Gardens
Volunteers plant trees on the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Properties in 2021 as part of Holden Forest and Gardens' People for Trees campaign. More than 10,000 trees have been given away by the program with a goal of 15,000 total trees planted by 2025.

Northeast Ohio is losing its tree canopy at a rapid clip. In Cuyahoga County alone, a recent survey found that nearly 10 square miles worth of tree canopy disappeared over a six-year period. But there are efforts underway to reverse that trend.

In Parma, that includes life-long resident Sharon Stahurski. On a recent late-winter afternoon, she stood at the corner of West 54th and Westlake Avenue and reflected on what this street looked like 50 years ago.

Sharon Stahurski looks over Ridge Road reflecting on the tree-lined streets lost in Parma.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Organizer Sharon Stahurski reflects on the loss of tree canopy in her home of Parma. According to the 2019 Cuyahoga County Urban Tree Canopy Assessment, Parma itself lost 7.88% of its tree canopy between 2011 and 2017 alone.

"When you walked up and down West 54th Street. You had shade. When I would ride my bike as a child, you know, I had shade to ride in," Stahurski said. "You don't now, I mean, just look down these streets."

Stahurski is the organizer of the Facebook group Trees are Needed for a Greener Parma. The group called on the city to restore the tree canopy there.

"Milford Avenue, two streets over. There's nothing. There's nothing," Stahurski said. "And we played amongst these trees. Now people say, oh, disease, and so on and so forth, but we definitely don't have to take down healthy trees. You know, there's other methods."

And Stahurski isn’t wrong about the loss of trees. According to an article last year in Inside Climate News, during a six-year period ending in 2017, the city lost the equivalent of 5,000 football fields worth of tree canopy.

Urban Heat Island

That loss has a real impact according to Cameron Lee, a professor in the Department of Geography at Kent State University.

Planted tree in the City of Parma.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
A tree was planted by the City of Parma on West 54th Street. Parma's Service Director Tony Vannello said there have been 480 trees obtained for planting since 2021 through the use of grant funding.

"So you reduce tree canopy cover and you're going to have, you know, hotter, urban heat islands," Lee said. "And so (an) urban heat island is already in some places, upwards of 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the surrounding rural areas."

 Lee is the Director of a lab at Kent State which focuses on climate science research.

 "With decreased tree canopy, less shade, you're going to, therefore allow more of the incoming solar radiation from the sun to hit the ground," Lee said.

According to Lee, the urban heat island effect is a leading killer, and losing trees will make that problem worse.

 "And eventually I have to ask, you know, how much tolerance does the population in urban areas have?" Lee said.

People for Trees

Beck Swab showed off a tree nursery behind the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. They are for the Holden Forest and Gardens' People for Trees program which Swab runs. In the last three years, the program has given away more than 10,000 trees to Northeast Ohio residents.

Beck Swab and Tree
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Beck Swab stands next to one of the trees that Holden's People for Trees campaign is growing near the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. Swab is the Director of Conservation and Community Forestry at Holden Forest and Gardens.

 "We're losing canopy cover as people are putting up developments or just cut down trees in the yard and not replace them," Swab said. "And of course, that's much worse in low-income neighborhoods where there's not a lot of homeowners, there's a lot of rentals, those are even less likely to get it."

Swab said in some parts of Cleveland, the tree canopy is as low as 6%. They said their goal is for Cleveland to be the forest city once again.

Saving Akron's Green Spaces

Dallas Aleman is a member of the Akron group, Preserve the Valley. Since 2020, the group has led efforts to rein in development projects in the Merriman Valley - the city’s northernmost neighborhood.

 "We just move the lever a little bit from the standpoint of just what individuals can do if they just sort of get together and just have a, shared interest in, in doing something for the future," Aleman said.

Dallas Altman stands outside his Towpath Tennis Club in Akron.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Advocate and Preserve the Valley member Dallas Aleman stands outside his business, the Towpath Tennis Club in Akron's Merriman Valley. His group helped push the City of Akron to agree to preserve a tract of land nearby known as Theiss Woods in June 2023.

And the group’s work has paid off. Last year, Akron agreed not to develop the Theiss Woods property, a 45-acre plot of public land near the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The original housing development proposal drew backlash from area residents and led to the creation of the group.

When it comes to the loss of tree canopy, back in Parma, Mayor Tim DeGeeter said many trees have been removed from tree lawns there due to disease - but also due to residents not wanting a large tree in their yard. The city’s Service Director Tony Vannello said there have been efforts since 2021 to add to the canopy.

 "We've had a number of grants that that we've obtained, we've actually received around 480 trees over three years," Vannello said. "Our most recent grant that we received is, it's actually 200 large canopy trees for a reforestation project at Walters Road Grove Park."

A picture od a devil strip empty of trees the entire length of the suburban Parma street.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
The view looking down the tree lawns on Montauk Avenue in Parma is devoid of trees. Sharon Stahurski, organizer of the Facebook group 'Trees are Needed for a Greener Parma' described most residential streets like this as being heavily tree-lined and full of shade when she was growing up 50 years ago. She hopes her efforts will aid in restoring the tree canopy there.

That may not be enough for longtime resident Sharon Stahurski, but to her every tree is important.

 "I mean it changes the whole background, the whole health of the city," Stahurski said. "I mean, you know, trees, they're, they're the world's lungs."

J. Nungesser is a multiple media journalist at Ideastream Public Media.