EnvironmentGreen SpacesVolunteering

How Do Your Shade Trees Grow?

Image courtesy of Penn Hills Shade Tree Commission

They say it takes a village.

Of course, when “they” say that, they are often talking about raising a baby. But if we really think about it, very few major efforts are accomplished in isolation. Teams win the World Series, great leaders have great cabinets, and a memorable restaurant experience has an excellent chef paired with good servers.

In a similar vein, there is a true village in the Penn Hills Shade Tree Commission. Since Penn Hills resident Kathy Raborn founded the Commission in 2017, the effort has accomplished fantastic things – over 290 trees and hundreds of wildflowers established, multiple important programs founded, and both literal and figurative seeds planted towards the dream of a greener future in the municipality. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kathy about the creation and coordination of this effort, and as I listened to her story, I found myself impressed with the village, with the team, she created as a part of the Commission.

“It’s been an amazing and rewarding project,” says Kathy, with a quiet but unmistakable sense of determined passion and authenticity. “The thing I’m most proud is the amazing turnout of volunteers – 50-60 volunteers each event. Our volunteers are such an impressive group of people, I could never have made this all work without our volunteers.”

Kathy, a landscape designer by profession, long dreamed of starting a shade tree commission. She was aware of the many positive effects of tree canopies in urban and suburban neighborhoods and wanted to bring them to her own community.

“Beyond the aesthetics, trees bring environmental benefits, increases community values. Plus there are so many studies about how tree cover helps reduce crime, helps students learn – just so much!”

And indeed, Kathy is correct. If you will forgive the brief digression, there is a treasure trove of really cool data demonstrating that trees measurably support our human communities in a variety of ways. Notably, in our pandemic-stress-ridden world, the presence of trees are known to decrease the recovery time from stressful encounters, positioning trees as a contributing solution to public health crises. In another boost towards human health, trees help capture air pollution, especially as they mature. Considering asthma-related health issues cost the American economy $81.9 billion annually in healthcare and lost labor/school time, investing in trees seems to be a helpful long-term option. In a related health issue, trees in urban/suburban areas help reduce something called the urban heat island effect – the warming of concrete-heavy, green-limited city areas. The urban heat island effect causes significant increases in cooling costs for residents and businesses when compared to their counterparts in less dense areas, and, unfortunately, this heightened heat also has a noticeable mortality in vulnerable populations. Trees can help counter this. In addition, tree-lined business districts fare better economically than tree-free business districts because the presence of trees offers a more welcoming space for shoppers (whether they realize the draw or not!). And on a note that hits close to home, in communities like Pittsburgh who are seeing increased flooding as an early indicator of climate change, trees to can help manage stormwater and flood situations by drawing up water, maintaining hillsides vulnerable to landslides, and protecting against erosion.

All of these reasons, and many more, sat in Kathy’s mind, the possibilities echoing as the environment around us continually changed. However, in the years before her shade tree dream came to fruition, Kathy was still busily making a difference. She organized the environmental programs at her children’s elementary schools, creating butterfly gardens and giving occasional presentations on butterflies, pollinators more broadly, and the wilder natural world. She later moved on to volunteering with the Penn Hills Community Development Corporation (CDC) by maintaining gardens.

“On top of that,” she says. “I started the Penn Hills Monarch and Milkweed Project about seven years ago. With volunteers, we grow a thousand pots of three different types of milkweed, and in June we give them away from the community garden.”

Even with all of this work to keep her busy, Kathy still couldn’t shake the idea of a shade tree commission.

“It was finally a class from Penn State Extension, ‘How to Start a Shade Tree Commission,’ that gave me enough information plus the motivation to get started.” She notes that every municipality, city, and township has its own laws and ways of doing things, meaning she still had independent research to do, but the course gave her the boost she needed to act and she already had built the perfect network.

“I connected with other community members in the CDC – you really have to have connections for this sort of thing – and we wrote up an ordinance and assured the council it wouldn’t have to cost the municipality anything.

“And,” here she paused with a small, proud smile, “For the council meeting, all of the shade tree supporters came wearing green. So many people in green.”

Thus, that council meeting in 2017 officially launched the Penn Hills Shade Tree Commission. And since then, the work of the shade tree village has taken off!

Kathy noted that a major undertaking has been the ongoing Plum Creek Restoration Project. To date, the commission’s volunteers have managed over 7000 feet of creek bank, removing Japanese knotweed (a multi-year, labor intensive effort!) and tree-of-heaven to make the landscape hospitable for native plants. Volunteers later planted 110 trees and a variety of native wildflowers instead. While beautiful and valuable from an economic perspective, this restoration is also incredibly ecologically valuable. As the trees mature, they will help prevent streambank erosion (again, useful as climate change increases our average rainfall) and the wildflowers will help support pollinator populations.

Another one of the commission’s projects is amazing in its accessibility and benefit to the community!

“The Front Yard Tree Project,” says Kathy. “We go into neighborhoods and offer a free flowering tree for the front yard, and volunteers come in and plant the trees…We do this every spring and fall, and it’s the real thing – there is no catch.”

Although, Kathy noted that the sheer too-good-to-be-true appearance of the project had actually been a slight hindrance.

“If someone knocks on my door and offers me something for free, ‘I’m like ummmm, nothing is free, no thank you.’”

But in this case, “free” is actually the real deal. For any neighborhood street, if at least ten neighbors on that street want a flowering tree for their front yard, the Shade Tree Commission will make that happen, and they will take care of all the work. To help counter the hesitance, the commission is even adding a $50 Giant Eagle gift cards to participating households! (As a side note to Penn Hills readers out there, check out this program on their website!)

Another exciting project is new to this year – Rodi Road will be getting some more trees!

“When I first started the Shade Tree Commission, I really wanted to plant trees along Rodi Road,” said Kathy, but at the time, there were several concerns about infrastructure, sidewalks, and such, so Kathy ultimately turned her attention to the Front Yard Tree Project.

“But our newer Mayor Pauline Calabrese recently said to us ‘Why don’t you plant some trees along Rodi Road?’ And it turns out that one of her priorities it to beautify our roads and try to uphold codes about trees on business properties!”

Kathy notes that this spring she has a meeting with TreeVitalize to identify places to plant along Rodi Road, and the first planting will be this fall. She knows it could be a shift for many of the businesses along the road who may or may not have experience in maintaining trees, but Kathy knows her village.

“It’s just so exciting, and we will be there to help any business who needs us.”

It’s also amazing to note that the bulk of the Shade Tree Commission’s work is not funded by the municipality. Kathy and her team have written grants to support a number of the projects, but trees, equipment, supplies, and fundraising raffle items have also been generously donated by Penn Hills Lawn and Garden, Jendoco Construction, Local Roots Landscaping, Penn Hills Rotary, Penn Hills Freemasons, Kindred Curl, and community members. In the first year of the Shade Tree Commission, for example, Penn Hills Lawn and Garden donated a tree to be raffled off for the commission’s very first fundraiser; that tree generated enough funding to purchase 15 new trees that were all planted at the elementary school!

It’s safe to say…the Penn Hills Shade Tree Commission is doing some pretty remarkable things. They are directly benefiting the community and helping to support the environment through their work, but it’s still hard not to just smile at the village, the network, the community that Kathy has built through this massive effort.

“With all of these volunteers that help us, so many of them are families with little kids, and it’s just wonderful. Even during covid, we could set out materials and families could work together to plant ‘their’ tree, and they really do get attached and they feel like it’s their tree and they keep coming back to see their tree.” She pauses to smile.

“It’s just wonderful.”

Image courtesy of Penn Hills Shade Tree Commission

For More Information

Check out the Penn Hills Shade Tree Commission’s website https://pennhillsstc.org/index.html or their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/PennHillsSTC/.

Important Events and Dates

  • May 7 – Penn Hills Arbor Day Celebration, location TBD
  • May 21— Front Yard Tree Project Planting, volunteers needed to plant
  • Milkweed and Monarch Dates
    • June 4 — Milkweed and Monarch (now coordinated by Barb Meckel) is hosting a milkweed giveaway at Penn Hills Community Garden

Key Folks

As Kathy noted, volunteers have been a fundamental part of this work – Sandy Feather, Rick Duncan, Betty Arenth, Tory DeJohn, Jill Daly, Laurie Follweiler, “And so many others. I have just the most amazing group of folks I’m working with.”

Image courtesy of Penn Hills Shade Tree Commission




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