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Baltimore County finding low income neighborhoods that need trees

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and others shovel dirt on a tree being planted in Eva Engelbach's front yard. Credit: John Lee
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and others shovel dirt on to a tree being planted in Eva Engelbach's front yard. Credit: John Lee

Baltimore County is planting hundreds of trees in heavily populated, low-income neighborhoods. These are areas with a dearth of trees and where people can least afford to plant new ones.

Eva Engelbach has lived in her home in the West Inverness neighborhood of Dundalk for 50 years. She led the countdown as

County Executive Johnny Olszewski and others ceremoniously shoveled dirt onto a new tree the county was planting in her front yard.

Afterward, sitting on her porch, Engelbach remembered when the neighborhood had plenty of trees, including one in her front yard.

“After we were here for a few years it started interfering with the plumbing, and it kept growing over and over and each spring I had to call Roto-Rooter.”

Engelbach said finally, she decided the tree had to go.

Urban areas are hard on trees. They are taken down because their roots can bust up pipes and do a number on sidewalks, or they get in the way of development. But studies show trees can cool neighborhoods in the summer, improve air quality which cuts down on asthma, reduce stress and increase property values.

So, the county is using some high-tech mapping of its tree canopies to figure out where the trees aren’t.

David Lykens, the director of the county’s environmental protection and sustainability department said, “What we found was that the people who can least afford to plant trees are the ones that are the most disadvantaged and have the lowest tree canopy coverage.”

They figured that out by using new mapping technology to find all the tree canopies in the county. They did that in two steps, according to Robert Hirsch, a county natural resource manager. First, they used high resolution aerial photography.

“That is very good at differentiating between vegetation and other types of land covers,” Hirsch said.

Then that vegetation was measured by a high-speed laser flown over the county in an airplane.

“And you can see, ok there’s vegetation here, oh it’s tall vegetation, this is a tree. There’s vegetation here. It’s low. Ok, that’s grass.”

Then they gave neighborhoods a score based on their tree canopies, income and population density. From that, Lykens said they are targeting around 30 neighborhoods with few trees, low income and a lot of people.

“There are some in Arbutus, some in Catonsville, some going up into Randallstown, there’s one in Parkville, and there’s some coming down the east side,” Lykens said. “A lot also in Essex and the Dundalk area.”

That includes Eva Engelbach’s West Inverness neighborhood. The county has a goal of having its neighborhoods in the urban area, basically the part that rings Baltimore City, have 40% tree canopy coverage within 4 years. West Inverness is at about 8%.

Susan Rayba, the president of the West Inverness Community Association, helped to convince some of her neighbors to take a free tree.

“We’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity to get this and when I got the call I said yes, we’re in.”

Rayba said some who hesitated because of the damage trees have done in the past to underground pipes changed their minds after being told the new trees will have root barriers, which guide roots away from would-be problems.

“Besides the health benefits of trees, it’s an emotional benefit as well,” Rayba said.

Olszewski said he got the idea for the tree equity program from his wife Marisa who has a master’s degree in environmental biology.

“I take good ideas no matter where they come from, including my wife,” Olszewski said. “Especially my wife I should say.”

Olszewski put $400,000 in this year’s county budget for what’s being called Operation ReTree. He also is proposing spending an additional $1.5 million in federal money the county is receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Over the next two weeks, the county will plant almost 300 trees in West Inverness.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2