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Tree experts envision the return of Phoenix’s oasis of trees

In the early 1900s, the Valley was an oasis of green with lush trees sprouting tall along wide canal banks that crisscrossed Phoenix and its suburbs.

Cottonwoods, among the more common of the area’s trees, dug in, drinking water that seeped from the dirt-lined canals.

By the 1950s, as families flocked to the Valley in post-World War II bliss to create a modern community, the oasis withered.

Today, only hints of the area’s original vegetation remain. Among them, Murphy Bridle Path, which stretches north along Central Avenue from Bethany Home Road in Phoenix.

With an explosion of cars, home development and street widening, “it was the march to civilization,” said Ed Lebow, a city of Phoenix employee who was one of several speakers Wednesday at the Regional Tree and Shade Summit held in downtown Phoenix.

The goal of the daylong program was to help Valley communities realize the need to expand their shade coverage, including planting more trees. The idea is to help the Valley return to more of an urban-forest environment, one that promotes healthier air and makes the region a more livable space.

The more than 200 participants included representatives from Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale and other cities, and was supported by the Arizona State University Global Institute of Sustainability and the U.S. Forest Service.

Along with getting cities to step up their tree-planting programs, residents may want to research the best tree to add to their yards, participants said.

Phoenix is working on more than doubling its amount of shade from trees. “Our urban tree canopy is about 11 percent,” said Richard Adkins, a forestry supervisor for the city of Phoenix. “We want it to be 25 percent. Will it be easy? No. Is it possible? Yes.”

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is a believer. He told the group that increasing the number of trees can only help reduce carbon emissions.

“As I drive around, I see fields of asphalt,” he said.

The challenge, he said, was to get the community to change and see the value of creating an urban forest.

It’s easy for governments to divert money for trees to more pressing needs, said Mark Buscaino, executive director of Casey Trees, a non-profit organization that works to protect trees and forests within the District of Columbia.

Someone is always saying you need to spend money on city needs, such as paving a road. But not including funds to plant trees or add shade structures hurts the community in the long run, he said. More people are moving to urban centers and need more livable spaces. “They’re going to demand it,” Buscaino said.

If not for them, then think of the generations to come, he added.

Phoenix officials pointed to Civic Space Park as an example of trying to improve the downtown environment and reduce the city’s urban heat island.

The park, at Central Avenue north of Van Buren Street, opened in fall 2009. It was designed to be a community gathering place and, with its expanses of trees and man-made shade, has been a lure for visitors.

Even with new and existing trees, residents and even city officials have to be better water conservationists, said Ken Vonderscher, a deputy director for the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.

“We water our trees too much,” he said.

Lebow, who directs the Phoenix public-art program and has researched the impact of the Salt River Valley canals on the Valley, said that if not for progress, the Valley’s residents may have preserved its oasis.

In digging through newspaper archives, Lebow found an item from the 1870s that reflected the importance of trees.

“It said, ‘Planting season is now at hand in this city. Let every person who owns a lot see that shady trees are set out.'”

Residents took it to heart, he said.

“That’s why in the early 1900s, we were known as a city of gardens and trees. You just can’t beat a tree.”

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