Let knowledge serve urban trees

100-year-old Mel, a Holladay Park Plaza resident, and PSU professors Catherine McNeur and Vivak Shandas

Every tree has a story

A Douglas fir named Doug who writes letters to first-and-second graders about the forest.

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A cedar planted in the Frederick H. Ramsey cemetery in 1895 in memory of Fred himself.

A beloved London planetree in the courtyard of Holladay Park Plaza, a retirement community where residents are given a drawing of the tree when they turn 100.

These are a few of the dozens of submissions to Canopy Story, an online tree-mapping and storytelling project started by PSU professors Vivek Shandas and Catherine McNeur.

The project grew out of McNeur’s history class on heritage trees and Shandas’ research on urban ecosystems and Portland’s tree canopy.

Together with a graduate student, Jackson Voelkel, they used used an aerial digital image of Portland, to locate every tree in the city taller than 50 feet, created an online map and invited the community to share their stories about individual trees, ranging from the historic to the personal.

The professors’ students visited farmer’s markets, street fairs, schools and community meetings to spread the word about the project and solicit stories. Some residents were reluctant to contribute, because they thought their stories were not interesting or good enough. But even a memory, detail or feeling about a tree can help tell its story, the professors say.

Trees are often overlooked in city archives, McNeur says. Their history can be tracked in the background of photos or other accounts of changing neighborhoods, but they usually aren’t the focus or subject of documents. “You have to be really scrappy about trying to find out the history of a specific tree,” she says.

“Community stories add value to the trees,” she says. “They’re not part of the background anymore. They become a vital part of a community’s history.”

McNeur and Shandas are applying for grants to improve and expand the site with multimedia, audio and video stories about the trees and link it to K-12 school curriculum. They hope it will show the significance of the trees and perhaps help preserve Portland’s tree canopy as the city grows.

“I suspect the trees are really going to be symbols of a vibrant community,” Shandas says. “If that is true, what does that mean about neighborhoods devoid of trees and stories?”

At Portland State University, we believe knowledge works best when it serves the community.

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