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The New Rules of Urban Reforestation

March 30, 2023 by Nicole Mason

How do you reforest an entire community virtually from scratch? Where do you start? What should you do differently with the benefit of modern ecological insights and an eye towards environmental justice? How do you get the broad public and private buy-in needed to execute such a colossal task?

These were some of the questions facing Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after a catastrophic derecho, with gusts equivalent to an F3 tornado, ripped through the heart of the city on August 10, 2020. In little more than an hour, 50 to 65 percent of the city’s tree canopy — nearly 670,000 trees — were destroyed in what was likely the greatest single urban tree-loss storm event in modern history.

Four people were killed that day and hundreds more injured. A thousand homes were rendered unlivable, and total property damage was estimated at $4.9 billion. In the face of such extraordinary loss, City Manager Jeff Pomerantz reached out to renowned city planner Jeff Speck, FAICP, FAIA, with a monumental request: Give us a blueprint to reforest our city.



Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, was initially reluctant to take the job. “I had previously redesigned the downtown street network in Cedar Rapids,” Speck says. “But I am not a landscape architect, and the stakes could not have been higher. I ultimately took the job for three reasons: they really wanted my help, I was confident I could build a good team, and I saw the opportunity to create a model plan that could push the practice of urban forestry in some important directions.”

Speck reached out to colleagues in the region who recommended our firm, Confluence, a national landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm with offices in Cedar Rapids. We were excited to colead this effort to rebuild after the devastation we had witnessed firsthand.

With a team in place, the city and local nonprofit Trees Forever — an organization laser-focused on growing the regional tree canopy — partnered to commission the plan, completed over the course of a year. ReLeaf Cedar Rapids was released to the public in February 2022.

The resulting plan and the lessons from its development have broad applicability for communities and planning professionals everywhere.

Prioritize replanting through principles and data

Cedar Rapids had an existing street tree inventory, which saved the planning team months of legwork and allowed them to more quickly assess which areas of the city were hardest hit. The team layered into its geographic information system (GIS) publicly available data from Tree Equity Score, as well as city data sets that captured percentage of trees lost, pedestrian infrastructure demand, and children’s proximity to park space, along with several others.

Using these huge datasets, the team was able to carefully prioritize replanting in a way that reflected a set of guiding principles defined through a robust public outreach process. These are summarized in ReLeaf’s mission statement: “ReLeaf Cedar Rapids is committed to rebuilding a resilient canopy of trees, one that preserves citywide plant diversity and distinct neighborhood character, while striving to limit climate change, increase social equity, encourage volunteerism, grow human capital, and educate our children.”









ReLeaf Cedar Rapids considered road classification, percent of trees lost to the storm, total number of vacant planting spots, the Tree Equity Score, and pedestrian infrastructure demand as factors in this ranking. Source: ReLeaf Cedar Rapids.


Using these principles as a guide, the team created a scoring system for equitably prioritizing replanting; the hardest hit areas with the lowest Tree Equity Score were tapped for replanting first. In all, some 67 park properties and more than 7,400 distinct street segments were analyzed and prioritized for replanting over 10 years. We know of no other plan that so carefully creates a chronology of interventions based on integrating geographical data with community-sourced principles. Such a system could easily be applied to many other planning efforts, such as the distribution of street safety improvements.

Update your urban forestry thinking

The planning team reexamined current urban forestry practices and recent findings to guide the city on what to plant and how. The result is the eight ReLeaf Rules, some of which run counter to what many cities are currently doing.

“Rule 2, Citywide Diversity and Local Character, recognizes that citywide diversity goals do not mean that you can’t or shouldn’t create memorable places by using the same species to line an entire street,” Speck says. “Frank Santamour of the National Arboretum, who wrote the book on street tree diversity, said, ‘Strips or blocks of uniformity should be scattered through the city to achieve spatial as well as biological diversity.’ Many cities think they need to put a tutti-frutti potpourri on every street, and this is simply not the case.”

For years, urban foresters have additionally debated the importance of planting native trees. ReLeaf Rule 3, Locals, Not Imports, acknowledges what biologists have now confirmed: nonnative trees can provide many useful ecosystem services, but they actively erode the food web. With that in mind, the tree list created for Cedar Rapids instructs the city to never plant a nonnative tree in a location where a native tree will thrive. Because the plan puts so much emphasis on natives, the planning team reached out to regional growers and nurseries early on to jump-start increased growing of native tree stock.

Perhaps one of the most surprising recommendations is Rule 6, Let Trees Mingle. “Trees in fact do not benefit from being given room to breathe — another common misconception in some places,” Speck adds. “As in a natural forest, they love being planted very close together, where their roots can share nutrients and information, and they can support each other during windstorms. The only real limitation to planting density is budget.”

Build a system for private participation

Both the city and Trees Forever have hired staff dedicated to seeing the plan through. However, meeting the city’s planting goals would still account for only 15 percent of the total tree canopy in the community.

It was therefore vital that ReLeaf both inspire and empower private citizens, businesses, and institutions to do their part. The plan is being widely distributed in a magazine format with accessible graphics and novelistic writing that also educates users about tree selection, planting and caring for trees, and their role in reducing urban heat, capturing carbon, improving air quality, reducing energy costs, and even increasing property values.

Youngsters in the fall of 2021 replanting trees after the derecho. The plan encourages schools and corporations to sponsor tree-planting events.The magazine format of the plan is filled with illustrations, graphics and engaging writing. Photos courtesy of ReLeaf Cedar Rapids.

Youngsters in the fall of 2021 replanting trees after the derecho. The plan encourages schools and corporations to sponsor tree-planting events.


Strong partnerships between public, private, and nonprofit entities have likewise been essential to the plan’s broad adoption. Organizations like Trees Forever and Monarch Research Project are helping plan tree adoptions, tree distributions, and sales of native species. Corporate campuses are being encouraged to host planting days, removing the burden of labor costs from the city.

The plan has already seen success. In 2021, while the planning team was completing their work, the city planted 400 park trees and the nonprofit Trees Forever installed more than 800 street trees. Cedar Rapids has obligated $1 million a year for 10 years from its general obligation fund, while Trees Forever is leading efforts to raise the rest of the $27 million required to implement the plan within a decade.

Ultimately, sustained will on both the public and private side will determine whether the Emerald City’s famed canopy is rebuilt, but by creating a data- and principle-driven framework with specific, actionable recommendations and resources, Cedar Rapids certainly has the tools to succeed.

Patrick Alvord has been the managing principal of Confluence’s eastern Iowa office in Cedar Rapids since 2014, where he leads a small but dedicated staff of landscape architects serving public and private clients on projects of all scales.

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