Rockford tree advocate builds support for urban forest
When the city rebuilds a street, a retailer builds a new store or you and I consider yet again how to minimize costs of heating or cooling our home, trees should be part of the plan.
If Edith Makra has her way, we will all be thinking “trees, trees, trees” much more than we do today as Rockford deals with the loss of thousands of ash trees and an otherwise aging tree canopy.
Makra speaks for trees. Her job title is “community trees advocate.” She works out of Klehm Arboretum, which has the city’s greatest tree collection, in a program supported by the city, county, Forest Preserve and Park District.
Her mission: To build long-term support for a vibrant urban forest. She wants to erase any questions about Rockford remaining the Forest City, a nickname it received from an out-of-town newspaper writer decades ago before Dutch Elm Disease.
Makra is reviewing local landscape regulations to see if they can be improved. The old policies didn’t work much of the time. For example, how many little squares of ground, covered with a grate and sprouting weeds, have you seen in parking lots or sidewalks. Sticking trees in tiny spaces surrounded by concrete doesn’t work.
Makra advocates a “better way of planting trees, clustering them so they share rooting space” and provide a greater impact.
She wants to see trees everywhere. “A vibrant urban forest, she said, includes a healthy canopy of trees everywhere we live, landscape trees, street trees, trees on institutional and business properties ... the urban forest should run from the city center to forest preserves outside of town.”
Despite all the talk about trees, they still don’t get the respect they should, Makra said. She recently reviewed state energy guidelines for residential neighborhoods.
“Nowhere does it suggest planting trees on the west side of homes where they can reduce the annual cooling cost by six to seven percent,” she said. “In northern climes like ours, most of the energy savings we’re going to get from trees involve cooling and people need to know that.”
Makra has been impressed by the number of people she’s met here who care about trees. She hopes to make it easier for them to put their passion into action with expanded awareness programs, a community-wide appreciation of rare or historical trees, making neighborhood groups and others aware of funding sources for trees, and making the care of trees a part of every citizen’s role in the community.
We have a lot to build on, Makra said after her first two months on the job.
“Rockford has a better than average canopy in terms of mature, unusual trees. The diversity is better than in many other communities,” she said.
“The impact of the emerald ash borer invasion (which has hit the region and is expected to kill tens of thousands of ash trees) sounds frightening, I know, but Rockford’s percentage of ash trees, about 16 percent, is lower than in many of the suburbs.”
The impact of tight local government budgets is apparent, though, in the scarcity of young and middle-aged trees in the city, Makra said. But with support of organizations such as Klehm, the City of
Gardens, local government and citizens, that can be remedied, she believes.
“Anytime we celebrate the connection we as human beings have with trees, we build a sustainable culture,” she said. “Much of the motivation in a community trees program comes from a sense of public health and safety, and a greater sense of pride in our community.
“It’s not esoteric and most people would embrace that.”