The true value of urban trees: How Fort Wayne is investing in greenery that gives back

Urban trees are often seen as nice additions to streetscapes and parks, but there’s much more to these leafy assets than meets the eye.

According to an article in Fast Company, planting more trees in a city is a cheap and simple way to improve the well-being of its people. Therefore, “Public health institutions should be financing urban greenery to support well-being and air quality.”

“Trees are sustainability power tools,” the article says. “They clean and cool the air, regulate temperatures, counteract the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and support water quality and manage flow.”

Just ask architect Zach Benedict, architect and principal at MKM architecture + design. Benedict has studied how environments of all kinds affect the human condition. He says we, as a society, have only recently begun to understand the connection between economic development and community health.

"As research continues to grow, it’s clear that our interaction with nature plays a critical role in sustaining our well-being–especially in urbanized areas," he says. "With benefits ranging from increased physical activity (and reduced chronic disease) to improved cognitive function, the correlation between quality greenspace and community health is undeniable."

These truths are not surprising to leaders in Fort Wayne, says Derek Veit, who acts as the City’s Superintendent of Urban Forestry.

Superintendent of Urban Forestry Derek Veit says Fort Wayne is invested in its "green infrastructure."

For generations, Fort Wayne has been taking an active approach to urban tree maintenance and care, Veit explains, and his current role is a testament to that commitment.

“To me, this is kind of the dream job because not every city has an urban forest program,” he explains.

Veit has been Superintendent of Urban Forestry since 2016. He says that just as impressive as his role’s existence is Fort Wayne’s longstanding commitment to and stewardship of its natural resources.

Fort Wayne's first park was formed in 1863, and the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department formed in 1894. The Board of Commissioners was created in 1905, and the first City Forester was hired in 1914.

"His name was Adolph Jaenicke," Viet says. "That's kind of a familiar Fort Wayne name," he adds, noting that Jaenicke played a transformative role in the city’s parks system.

For example, Fort Wayne had only two parks when Jaenicke arrived on the scene, but by the time he died, it had 39.

George Kessler is another name from history credited with impacting Fort Wayne’s greenery and parks. Kessler designed the city’s park and boulevard system in his 1912 masterplan.

"Kessler's vision was to place the city within the park, rather than the park within the city, which was the common approach for that time,” Viet explains.

Lakeside Park encompasses 23.8 acres of land.

More recently, he says the downtown riverfront has been strengthened with the addition of River Greenway paths and the completion of Headwaters Park in 1916. With the Grand Opening of Promenade Park this summer, it ultimately realizes Kessler's original vision of a downtown-area park.

According to Veit, the local parks system, as we know it, is a vibrant and dynamic institution.

"Throughout the years, commissioners have worked hand-in-hand with City Council to support many initiatives and ordinances for the support of environmental sustainability within the community," he explains.

As a result of these efforts, Fort Wayne has been recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation for decades as a Tree City USA Community. This program celebrates the importance of an urban tree canopy in cities across the nation.

This distinction is important because in order to meet the criteria, a city must invest at least $2 per capita into their urban forest, Veit says. According to his estimate, Fort Wayne spends more than twice that quota.

For proof of the city’s philosophy on trees, look no further than its physical assets. For instance, Coldwater Road, North Clinton Street and Dupont Road are tree-lined thruways.

In recent discussions about the development of Headwaters Lofts that threatened a handful of trees lining the Clinton Street sidewalk downtown, it became evident that Fort Wayne residents strongly value protecting their urban trees, too. The development’s plans were ultimately revised to accommodate a net gain of two trees in the area, rather than a loss.

But the trees in and around downtown only represent a fraction of the City’s total investment in greenery, Veit explains.

“Currently, we have 46,273 trees and 1,300 miles of right-of-way,” he says. “We also have an additional estimated 20,000 trees located in the manicured areas of our parks.”

A view of Promenade Park's treescape.

This fall, the City of Fort Wayne will be adding or planting an additional 1,158 trees city-wide, Viet says.

Looking to the future, he believes trees and other natural resources will continue to be valued for more than the sum of their parts in the Summit City. After all, what trees give back to the community is far greater than what they cost to plant and maintain.

“Moving forward, I expect more interest and investment into our green infrastructure,” Viet says. “We've always known the trees make oxygen, and oxygen is important. But the social, economic, environmental and health benefits provided by trees are becoming better understood. The truth is, the benefit of our investment into green infrastructure isn't really for us to enjoy. Trees are the only element of infrastructure that doesn't depreciate over time. The benefits that trees provide actually increase with age.”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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