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LOCAL

UF researchers take on two-year project to make inventory of Gainesville trees

Nora O'Neill
Gainesville Sun

Researchers at the University of Florida have begun a two-year project to make an inventory of trees on public rights-of-way and city parks throughout Gainesville.

The study is funded by the city of Gainesville and is meant to serve as an ecological analysis of the cityֱs public and private urban forest, according to a city news release. The study is led by researchers whose expertise lie in forest systems and environmental horticulture.

ֱWeֱre looking forward to the study results. How can you best manage Gainesvilleֱs urban forest if you donֱt know exactly what youֱve got?ֱ said City Arborist David Conser in the release. ֱWe expect the information gathered will help us to continue to maintain, and even enhance, this incredible public asset for years to come.ֱ

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The same study was conducted in Gainesville in 2016, the release says, the same year shading of residential buildings by trees saved residents an estimated $7.7 million in energy costs.

ֱGainesville is unique in how we approach trees,ֱ Mayor Harvey Ward said in an interview with The Gainesville Sun. ֱWe are still , by the way, we get that designation every year. We still have the highest percentage of tree canopy of any city in Florida, consistently.ֱ

Changes to trees in the city, including the removal of some and the planting of others, are always met by mass public response. At Gainesville commission meetings, trees are one of the topics that draw the most public comments ֱ and often the most public outcry.

Last year the Gainesville City Commission unanimously voted to save a roughly 40-year-old live oak in the heart of downtown on Southeast First Avenue in front of Harry's Seafood Bar & Grille. The tree's roots had caused the sidewalk and road to crack and push up, creating a dangerous tripping hazard. It also made the sidewalk impassable to those using motorized scooters and in wheelchairs.

After first agreeing to remove the tree, the commission reversed its decision following backlash from the community and decided instead to widen the sidewalk. The decision was estimated to cost around $600,000.

The changes have been completed, Ward said, saving the trees and building out a sidewalk that was double the size of the previous one. He also said most of the parking spots on the road were saved and the city was able to rebuild the 100-year-old stormwater system on that block at the same time.

ֱThat was a really great thing that we were able to do with tree mitigation funds, becauseֱ the catalyst was to save the trees,ֱ Ward said. ֱSo now we have a safe sidewalk that is a far better streetscape, and we've repaired some decades-old stormwater issues because they used to flood pretty badly, and it won't this year as badly.ֱ

The tree mitigation fund is a pot of money developers contribute to when they remove trees for projects. The fund has an estimated $7 million available.

The city is, however, in the process of removing four shumard oak trees on Southeast First Street. Ward said the sidewalk there would not be able to be fixed with the trees there and that the canopy created by the trees was not ideal. After construction is complete, he said, they will plant bluff oak trees which have roots more suited to be near the sidewalk.

Ward said in the ֱ80s and ֱ90s there was a huge push to plant many trees in downtown Gainesville. He said it was a good plan, but in hindsight the city is able to see what should have been done differently and should be willing to make changes in order to progress toward a better community.ֱ

ֱThat's the case with a lot of our trees, you know, we think, ֱWe've got these, this is the best we could possibly do,ֱ [and it's] not the best we can do,ֱ Ward said. ֱWe can do better than this. We can make better choices. And I want us to be bold enough as a community to say that we can do better, and to make the effort to do better when we can.ֱ