Trees make downtown inviting

Linden Lampman Mead, editor Tree Link

I recently spent three weeks in Rapid City, South Dakota, working at the Great Plains Interagency Expanded Dispatch Center on a fire dispatch assignment. During my time there, I had the opportunity to walk through the downtown area. The medium-sized trees growing along the walkways enhanced the downtown experience, providing a shady respite from the 90+ degree heat. Trees were pruned to allow visibility of downtown businesses underneath the cool canopy. It may simply be the opinion of a self-described “tree geek,” but the whole downtown seemed to come together because of the trees.

I visited with Rapid City’s Gary Garner, who has been the Urban Forester for 27 of the City’s 32 years as a Tree City USA.

Trees and businesses grow together in downtown Rapid City, SD.

TL: Rapid City has been a Tree City for over 30 years! That is quite an accomplishment. What is the history behind the City’s commitment to the program?

GG: There were really two events that spearheaded the need to put trees on the top of the priorities list. The first was the 1972 flood which destroyed a large area adjacent to Rapid Creek. This included a great deal of park land and much private property. There were 238 lives lost in the flood and, of course, thousands of trees destroyed. This led to the creation of what is now greenway. Some six years later, in 1978, Dutch elm disease found its way into Rapid City. The American elm population stood at approximately 6,000 trees, many of which were located in right-of-way and historical residential areas. This event led to the creation of the Urban Forestry Board. Thanks to many citizens with a passion for trees, the commitment to planting and caring for our urban trees grew as the elm population declined.

TL: What role does the City take in caring for trees?

GG: Street trees located in the public right of way are the responsibility of the abutting landowner to plant and maintain. Responsibility for the trees in the downtown area generally falls under the Parks and Recreation Department.

TL: It is often difficult for communities to convince business owners that trees are an asset, but medium sized trees populate downtown Rapid City. Is there a downtown business association that recognizes the benefits of trees and cares for them or does the city care for them?

GG: Rapid City recently created a downtown improvement district which has provided for development and landscaping in some public spaces using private dollars. What is now called Destination Rapid City has assumed the role of maintenance of much of the downtown landscape. With a few exceptions, the city stills cares for many of the trees. Generally speaking most of the trees in the downtown area have been planted using tax dollars.

TL: What is your biggest challenge with downtown trees?

GG: Conflicts with traffic signals and some buildings as the trees get large.  The locust trees at the intersections were planted too close to the curb line in some case making it a challenge to manage the trees as they mature.

TL: In your opinion, what is the biggest benefit of downtown trees?

GG: Creation of a welcoming and relaxing space. Shade and downtown cooling are obvious. The economic benefits to the business community are difficult to measure, but no doubt shoppers find downtown very inviting in a great part because of the trees.