St. Pete to see more trees, food forests

While the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded over 13 years ago, St. Petersburg residents will continue seeing positive environmental impacts funded by the city’s settlement money.

In April 2010, the drilling platform caught fire and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. The tragedy resulted in 11 deaths and the largest marine oil spill in recorded history.

BP (formerly British Petroleum) settled for over $20 billion, with St. Petersburg initially receiving about $6.5 million. City council members heard a plan to use the final $1.063 million payment to improve St. Petersburg’s tree canopy, food forests and community gardens at the Aug. 24 Committee of the Whole meeting.

The goal is for St. Petersburg’s tree canopy to cover 30% of the city. However, spending the bulk of the funding – $850,000 – on a study, rather than providing residents with saplings, was a source of contention.

“My goal is always to just get trees in the ground,” said Councilmember Ed Montanari. “We got to be smart about it; we don’t want to just put trees anywhere. But that’s just a tough number to go along with.”

Nearly 85% of the funding would help city staff inventory over 150,000 trees around roadways and parks. An independent firm would conduct the study, saving the city over $250,000.

City officials would also allocate $100,000 for a Food Forest Pilot to support six existing gardens and establish new locations. Those will sprout from the Childs Park neighborhood and other properties in the South St. Pete Community Redevelopment Area (CRA).

The city council will formally vote on the initiative at an upcoming meeting. While multiple council members expressed their desire to see the $850,000 go towards planting trees in yards, they also realize that more information is needed to ensure the program’s success.

“This is what we use that type of funding for – one-time larger expenditures,” said Councilmember Copley Gerdes. “I would love for it to be a lot lower. But it’s also $850,000 that doesn’t have to come out of the general fund … I would rather focus general fund dollars on funding trees; getting trees into the ground.”

Allison Mihalich, sustainability and resilience director, said shade can reduce ambient temperatures by about 20 degrees. She also noted that her department must avoid interfering with sidewalks and underground utilities when planting saplings.

Geographic information system-based (GIS) mapping and analysis is a key project component. Mihalic said the city would have to hire a GIS specialist and spend over $1.5 million to complete the project in-house.

“In addition to doing something really innovative in … green infrastructure or urban agriculture, we’re going to better understand the ins and outs,” Mihalic explained. “So that we don’t have rodent issues, and we don’t have decomposing mangoes laying about the food forest.”

A graphic highlighting food forest program objectives. Screengrab.

Dean Hay, senior urban forestry specialist, is leading efforts to improve the city’s tree canopy at the neighborhood level. He has inventoried over 4,000 trees in the last 18 months.

Hay said stakeholders need exponentially more data to know what areas need more trees and how close officials are to reaching the 30% coverage goal. “That’s something that I think we need to aggressively go after,” Montanari added.

Mihalic explained that the study would also determine the health and vulnerability of existing trees. City officials must still select a firm, and Mihalic said the cost could come under budget.

Hay said a volunteer tree-planting program would begin in September. He hopes to establish a model to reduce future costs by half or a third.

“We keep bumping up against not having enough data to know whether a shade tree is even possible,” Hay said.

The Food Forest Pilot will provide $10,000 to $20,000 for neighborhood associations, churches or schools to establish or expand food forests and community gardens. Applicants must attend a training course and donate 25% of their harvest to the community.

Mihalic said program officials have notified eight neighborhood associations of their intent to proceed. She expects to spend about half the $100,000 settlement funding on those projects.

Ensuring organizations can properly maintain gardens is another program focus. Council Chair Brandi Gabbard noted that the St. Pete Youth Farm is a local success story, and said its youth ambassadors could potentially provide community education.

“So much of the urban agriculture work is about changing the culture for the next generation,” Gabbard added. “The great thing about a food forest is that it does not only feed people, but it gives that shade as well.”




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