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Monday, May 25, 2015

The Power of Trees to Unite a Community

This is a post about the power of trees. The power of trees to unite a community. The power of trees to provide hope for the future. The hope that trees will unite a community going forward into the future.

This post is actually coming a month late, but I thought it is still worth talking about. Most states celebrate Arbor Day on the last Friday in April every year. Arbor Day was first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872 as a way to encourage communities in the fledgling state to plant trees in the towns that had been treeless prairies only a few decades before. My own community, Lower Macungie Township, PA, was primarily rural through much of the 20th century and focused on agriculture. Since 1971, however, Lower Macungie has gone from 10,521 acres of farmland to less than 3,000 currently. And from 8,814 residents in 1970 to over 31,000 in 2010. That is a 250% increase in 40 years, compared to the U.S. population, which increased just 51% in that same 40-year period. In the first decade of the 21st century, we had the dubious designation of fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania.

One of the results of the rapid and poorly planned development of Lower Macungie over the past 30 years has been fragmentation. As large farms were gradually sold off to developers, we saw increasing fragmentation of wildlife habitat as well as fragmentation of human habitat. Nearly every large residential development built during the growth years was not connected to the rest of the community by any means other than automobile.  If a development was required to have sidewalks (which did not happen until the late 1990s), the sidewalks tended to dead-end at the limits of the project. No forethought was given to requiring connecting sidewalks to get to adjacent developments or even just to get outside of the development without having to walk the circuitous sidewalks though along the streets that were laid out in patterns reminiscent of a medieval labyrinths.

Photo credit: Sharon Schrantz, East Penn Press
This year the township’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), which I chair, initiated our first annual Arbor Day event. I felt that beginning an Arbor Day tradition in the township could be a way to address two concerns I have:  it would add back a small bit of the nature we’ve lost through the past decades of development, and it would be an opportunity for residents from different developments to join together to celebrate planting a new tree in a township-owned open space.

The EAC selected a location for our Arbor Day tree that is near the only elementary school in the township that has sidewalks leading to it and which is safely by foot from at least six different developments.  Had it not been for the school being built five years ago, this area would still not have any sidewalks connecting the surrounding developments.  The location we chose for our Arbor Day tree is an underutilized parcel that the builder of an adjacent development had to donate to the township as ”recreational open space,” primarily because a floodplain separates it from the rest of the development. The parcel is about 6.5 acres if you don’t count a stormwater channel bordering it on one side.  Because the parcel is categorized as recreational open space, the Public Works Department mows it regularly all summer long, whether it needs it or not. In the 10 years I’ve lived here, however, I’ve never seen anyone use the parcel for recreation.

Photo credit: Sharon Schrantz, East Penn Press
Our Arbor Day celebration on April 24 this year opened with a soloist from the local high school chorus (who happens to be my niece) singing the National Anthem, and with local Boy Scout Troop 131 presenting the American flag for the pledge of allegiance. The centerpiece of our celebration was our Arbor Day tree for 2015:  a northern red oak (Quercus rubra) that was placed in a pre-dug hole.  Following a few words from local dignitaries, we asked all in attendance to take a turn with a shovel and toss in some dirt to help backfill the tree. By adding even a handful of soil to the tree’s root ball, everyone present had taken place in planting the tree. And by doing so, they are part of the legacy of hope for future generations of residents who will enjoy the tree’s beauty and shade.

Our plan is to select different locations in coming years to plant the township’s future Arbor Day trees – locations that can be accessed by at least two surrounding neighborhoods so that people from different developments can be drawn to the beauty the trees will offer and enjoy the birds that will also share the trees with the community. H   opefully, the 30 or so residents who attended our first annual celebration this year will seek out future celebrations and will bring their friends and neighbors.
Photo credit: Addison George, Morning Call (www.mcall.com) 

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