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North Hills Monthly

Tree Pittsburgh: Planting the Seeds of the City’s Future

Apr 02, 2017 12:04PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

A Tree Pittsburgh volunteer planting trees

April 28 is Arbor Day; a day to celebrate trees. But how important are these plants to our city, and to our society? We spoke with the executive director of Tree Pittsburgh, Danielle Crumrine, about the vital work this nonprofit organization does on a daily basis to ensure that the trees throughout our region are maintained. The organization works with volunteers and seasonal staff to care for and plant thousands of trees in our region.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is Tree Pittsburgh’s mission?

Danielle Crumrine (Crumrine): Tree Pittsburgh’s mission is to protect and restore our urban forests through tree planting, care and advocacy.

NHM: What is an urban forest?

Crumrine: It is every single tree in an urban area; a tree can be growing out of a crack in a sidewalk, in your front yard, in parks, along rivers and trails—all of the tree canopy. And we don’t just care for municipal trees; we work with private property owners as well. We look at ourselves as a holistic organization that is focused on every tree, whether those trees are private or public.

NHM: Why was there a need for this type of organization?

Crumrine: In 2005, the City of Pittsburgh conducted an inventory of all of the street trees and created a management plan. They hired arborists to come and look at every single tree along the streets, and one of the big findings from the inventory was that young trees weren’t surviving or getting that early care. They put a budget together, and it was millions of dollars of backlog maintenance. That led to the Shade Tree Commission starting a nonprofit that engaged the public in tree planting and care. The commission got a grant to hire staff, and one of the first things we did was spend about a million dollars in foundation money to prune big old city trees.

NHM: Why are trees so important to the urban environment? What benefits do they provide?

Crumrine: Trees clean the air and reduce noise pollution. Tree-lined streets provide shade and promote walking. Studies show that trees calm traffic. When you have a tree-lined street, it creates a tunneling effect that forces people to drive a little slower.

Environmental benefits are obvious for wildlife habitat. It is also very important to have trees along waterways to create a buffer to capture polluted storm water runoff. Riparian trees support the ecology of the water. It is all a fine-tuned system, and trees are a really important part of it.

Trees are also a catalyst for community building by bringing neighbors together to improve their neighborhoods.

NHM: Does Tree Pittsburgh work in partnership with anyone?

Crumrine: I believe very strongly in partnerships and not working in silo. We work closely with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy; we plant trees together. We help Friends of the Riverfront organize tree care events along the trails, and we help them with their tree planting efforts. We also work with all of the watershed groups, the Allegheny Land Trust, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. 

NHM: How many trees do you plant each year?

Crumrine: We are currently increasing the scale of our tree-planting program. In 2015, we planted nearly 600 trees. In 2016, we planted 6,000 trees, which gives you a sense of how we’re growing. This year, we plan to plant another 6,000.

NHM: How do you decide where and what to plant?

Crumrine: We have great data that tells us where trees are, where they aren’t, and where we’ve lost trees. LDAR, the satellite imagery we use, allows us to understand the size of our tree canopy.  We can hone in on a property and tell the percentage of tree canopy, and can tell from a bird’s-eye view if there’s space to plant more trees.

One of our goals is to increase biodiversity and genetic diversity, so I often talk about what trees we do not plant—we are staying away from maple and pear trees, as they are overplanted. We really focus on the right tree in the right place, so it’s very specific to the planting site. We are promoting the planting of conifer/evergreen trees, pines and some trees native to the area like the Kentucky coffeetree and the pawpaw tree. We are promoting many different types of white oak, as well as nut trees and persimmon trees. 

NHM: Where do the trees that you plant come from?

Crumrine: We have a nursery in Lawrenceville and a smaller nursery in Point Breeze; we grow everything from seed. We have 11,000 trees growing, which will keep expanding to the point where we have 100,000 trees, but we need to continue to raise funds to make that happen.

NHM: Once the trees are planted, who maintains them?

Crumrine: It depends—if it’s a street tree planting, we rely on adjacent property owners to help care for them, but we also organize volunteers through our Tree Tender program. In the case of trees where there are no homeowners to care for them, we will organize volunteers. If we plant on private property, it is up to the property owner at that point. Volunteers and corporate groups care for a lot of the trees.

NHM: What is the Tree Tender Program?

Crumrine: It is a way to engage the public in the care of trees. We teach participants everything from tree biology and how to plant trees, to how to prune, etc. It’s important to build awareness that trees are important, that we don’t take them for granted and we need people to get involved to help plant and care for trees. Over 1,700 people have taken that class. Word spread quickly; now the majority of tree tenders are from outside municipalities.

NHM: How important are volunteers?

Crumrine: More than 1,000 volunteers work with us every year, and that is just for tree care. We could never accomplish what we’ve accomplished with just our small staff. We planted more than 1,000 trees in one day in Sewickley Heights; we had nearly 100 volunteers help us.

NHM: Are there any upcoming events hosted by Tree Pittsburgh?

Crumrine: Arbor Day is Friday April 28, and we will be distributing 1,000 free trees in Market Square.

For more information on Tree Pittsburgh, visit