Million Trees Miami Campaign is aiming to raise Miami-Dade County’s tree canopy from 14 percent to to 30 percent by 2020. The campaign, launched by Miami-Dade Community Image Advisory Board, received $100,000 in grants last month to plant trees in two tree-deprived neighborhoods: Miami Gardens and Little Havana.
Partners for Places, a matching-grant program and project of the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities and its partner, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, contributed $50,000 to the endeavor while Health Foundation of South Florida matched that grant with another $50,000 in hopes that more shaded open spaces will promote exercise and health among residents from Little Havana and Miami Gardens. Those two communities fall into “hot spot” categories: areas in the county with above-average temperatures, according to the Florida Health Institute.
“We’re really trying to let the science tell us where we should be planting,” said Patrice Gillespie Smith, the Community Image Manager for the county’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department. She says an “overwhelming amount of residents” in those areas want more trees.
“Miami Gardens just completed tree-canopy study, they’re at 14.85% – they want 35% tree canopy coverage,” she said. She added that groups like Keep Miami Gardens Beautiful have been an active voice in the endeavor for more greenery in their community. At a council meeting in Little Havana, a woman said she exercises more often now because of the shade provided by trees in a park that was once treeless before plantings began.
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“We are not going to be the ones who select where to plant these, they are,” said Gillespie, who hopes residents will take it upon themselves to be environmental stewards of their communities and report neighbors or people who cut down trees illegally. The majority of the plantings in those areas will start during the rainy season. Citizens for a Better South Florida, a nonprofit that specializes in providing environmental education, will be working with the Community Image Advisory Board (CIAB) to provide “citizen forestry” workshops to the public so that people will better understand and embrace the value of trees.
Two hundred native trees will be purchased with the grant money from local nurseries in Homestead and possibly Central Florida, since different vendors specialize in certain trees. Workshops for residents and maintenance care are also budgeted in the $100,000 grant. Besides parks, Gillespie says sidewalks or connections to schools or private plots can be considered for the plantings.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss, chairman of the CIAB, spearheaded “Million Trees” in 2011 after reviewing the county’s tree analysis reports. A healthy urban forest should be 30 percent or higher and Miami’s was hovering between 12 percent and 14 percent. “When you look at communities that are looked upon very favorably, it’s the those that have trees, canopies and flowers,” said Moss at an edible tree planting on Nov. 14th at Camp Owaissa Bauer park in Homestead, alongside then-Commissioner Lynda Bell, in her last official project.
“Density of development isn’t favorable to trees,” said Joe Maguire, the county’s natural areas manager, who oversees 26,000 acres of nature preserves within Miami-Dade. He thinks the 30 percent goal is “probably doable” if the county’s Open Space Master Plan is followed, since it provides framework and zoning regulations that will allow for more open spaces for tree canopy.
“If we can stick to plan then over time there will be more areas for open space,” Maguire said.
If people want to see unlogged old growth pine forest they’ll have to travel to Long Pine Key in Everglades, he said. Oak hammocks still remain in Arch Creek, Greynolds Park and areas around Snake Creek Canal. Approximately 180,000 acres of pine rockland forest was reduced to just 4,000 acres between the arrival of the settlers in the late 1880s until the 1960s. The county, including Everglades National Park, was logged twice for its termite-resistant and highly prized slash pine, which dominated the pine rockland habitat. Just 2 percent remains today.
Francisco Escobedo, associate professor of Urban Forestry at University of Florida, says long-term commitment from government and residents, funding, space, and conservation of current trees are all important steps of maintaining and building a healthy tree community.
“Everybody loves to plant trees, it makes everybody feel good,” Escobedo said. He warns that often times, due to lack of maintenance, trees can die rather quickly. He thinks that before new tasks are taken on, preservation should take precedence. “We need to conserve what we have and educate people.”
In a highly criticized move last July, University of Miami sold about 88 acres of endangered Florida pine rockland forest, home to an assortment of endangered species, to the Palm Beach County developer Ram. The imperiled land will be paved to make way for a Walmart, LA Fitness, apartments and fast-food places. The developers must work out a plan with county and federal wildlife officials to offset the damage of protected species.
The types of trees allowed to be planted in Little Havana and Miami Gardens are listed on the county’s Open Spaces Master Plan. They have to be native shade trees that can withstand extreme weather, including hurricanes. When asked why fruit trees like mango and avocado aren’t prevalent on public land, Gillespie said it’s because of diseases like citrus canker and Laurel Wilt. Yet, residents throughout Miami have those types of trees in their front- and backyards and places like Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden provide tastes of international arrangements of both mangoes and avocados, a staple in many South Floridians’ diets.
Some benefits of an increase of tree canopy coverage for our community: reduced air-conditioning bills from shade, increase in property values, reduction of pollution and stormwater runoff, habitat for birds and other species and a slew of health benefits.
Health Foundation of South Florida, which has partnered with CIAB, hopes the 30 percent goal will raise awareness to the health benefits that trees can provide, such as reduced rates of diabetes and obesity since people tend to exercise more in shaded areas. “There is a correlation so we’re definitely trying to create areas in this extreme subtropical climate where it will be cooler for kids to exercise – there can be an incentive. Just like that woman from Little Havana who says that she exercises in the park now that there’s trees,” Gillespie said.
Based on a 2012 estimate of projected population growth between 2010 and 2015, Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research predicts that the population in Miami-Dade County will rise nearly 4.9 percent in 2015 – that more than 2,619,000 people will be living in the county next year. In places with a high-density population, natural habitats suffer to make way for new residential and commercial developments, leaving little room for trees to thrive and survive.
“Certainly in some areas there’s going to be less opportunities,” Maguire said. “As the county redevelops and we grow up and not out, we can slow down the sprawl by building a more vertical community. Then spaces will open up for more park land and more open communities.”