TAMPA — When Tish Thornberry moved into Hyde Park 40 years ago, the neighborhood had little to recommend it. But it did have trees.
Today, those same trees tower over a community that has become one of Tampa’s premier neighborhoods.
“They’re the ambiance,” Thornberry said this week.
Hyde Park’s century-old houses have been restored by people like Thornberry. Now its trees are nearing the ends of their lives and will have to be replaced.
On Thursday, Tampa City Council got its first look at a plan that will guide the way Tampa manages its trees for decades to come.
The urban forestry plan is the first of its kind in Florida and has already drawn the attention of communities as far away as Canada, planning director Cathy Coyle told council members.
Council members will formally adopt the guide next month. They’ll follow up by adopting ordinances to put certain parts of the program into action.
City officials developed the urban forestry plan with the help of Robert Northrop, a University of Florida forester who specializes in city trees.
Northrop told council members Tampa is already doing moderately well when it comes to managing its urban canopy. The city needs to improve its ability to track the health and vitality of its trees, he said.
Tampa’s trees provide millions of dollars worth of free services just by being there, Northrop said. They filter pollution from the air, soak up storm runoff and reduce the amount of energy needed to cool a house in the summer. They also increase property values.
About 29 percent of the city is covered in trees, based on a 2006 study the city commissioned by the University of Florida. Despite its suburban design, New Tampa has the city’s densest amount of tree cover, according to the study. The West Shore area has the thinnest.
Northrop worked with the University of South Florida to develop a website that lets Tampa residents identify and track the trees in their neighborhoods in hopes of helping the city identify which ones need replacing.
“We now have a system where anybody can begin to map the trees in their neighborhoods,” Northrop said.
Tampa has about 7.8 million trees, according to a 2006 University of Florida study.
The bad news is that the most common type of tree is the Brazilian peppertree, a woody, invasive weed that grows quickly in large clumps, Northrop said.
Most of Tampa’s urban forest is on private land, which makes managing the city’s forest a matter of public-private cooperation, Northrop said.
“It has to be a stewardship approach by all segments of society,” he said.
The city already protects so-called “grand trees,” the kind of large trees like century-old live oaks. Property owners have to get permission to cut down a grand tree. They can face a $15,000 fine if they act without a permit.
At the heart of the urban forestry program is making sure the right tree goes in the right space — keeping large trees away from sidewalks, for example. It also means replacing trees that aren’t suited to the local climate with those that are.
Doing those things will ensure the trees stay healthy, need less maintenance and grow to be large and productive, Northrop said.
That means people along Thornberry’s street will eventually have to say goodbye to the camphor trees that have shaded their homes for decades. Camphors aren’t on the list of suitable trees.
The Hyde Park neighborhood is working with the city to pick suitable replacements for its aging trees. The area could become the foundation for a new canopy that will shade the neighborhood for another century.
Said Thornberry, “It’s the way the neighborhood should be.”