Ambitious Project Aims To Map And Measure Trees In Coconut Grove In Hopes Of Changing Policies

Jun 24, 2019

The massive oak trees don’t just surround Katrina Morris’ home in Coconut Grove. They engulf it with branches hovering high above the roof, where a peacock roosts and makes incessant calls to would-be mates.

“I think our trees are over 100 years old,” says Morris, sitting in her backyard. “Because they grow over the top of our house and we don’t cut them away from our house, our energy bills are a lot less than a lot of other people.”

Yet Morris looks around her neighborhood and she feels uneasy. In recent years, developers have built massive houses on her block, cutting down trees in the process. She’s confused about why the city allows developers to cut the trees.

“We’re sitting in almost June in my backyard and it’s pleasant,” she argues. “Go outside the Grove and it’s not gonna be so pleasant, because you don’t have the canopy.”

A new research project from Florida International University could help bring some clarity to those decisions. The project, called Grove ReLeaf, has the ambitious goal of mapping every tree in the neighborhood and calculating what it calls the “services” provided by each of those trees. This includes things like the money saved by a tree’s cooling effects, root systems that combat flooding and sea-level rise, along with potentially negative factors for certain species -- messy fruits, root systems that threaten infrastructure, and the fact that some non-native trees can take over native habitats.

Ultimately, the data is meant to help city leaders incorporate data into tree policy for the City of Miami.

The project is headed by Chris Baraloto, a researcher at FIU and a veteran of tree studies. Before moving to the Grove he lived in French Guiana for over a decade, studying trees in the Amazon rainforest. Now he is using some of the research techniques in an urban setting to launch the research project. WLRN joined him as he started with a large live oak tree hanging over the sidewalk of Main Highway, near The Barnacle State Park.  

"We want to get people more involved in understanding the trees in their landscape" - Chris Baraloto

“It’s a very interesting tree,” says Baraloto. “It has a nice canopy to it and I’ve noticed a lot of people stop and look up inside of it, it has a lot of Spanish moss, bromeliads, and so it’s an iconic tree, I think, on a corner that a lot of people use as pedestrians for crossing.”

Baraloto measures the girth of the tree and estimates its height using an extension pole that shoots eleven meters up into the air. It’s about 55 feet tall and has a girth of 88 inches.

Using these simple measurements Baraloto can now estimate the carbon trapped by the tree’s growth, which helps fight climate change. He also notes the species of the tree, its location and other datapoints. The data will be aggregated into an interactive app that users will be able to pull up on the phone. In its final version, the data will likely be compatible with the app iNaturalist, says Baraloto.

The project already has an account on the app, where users can pull up a map of early research and observations. Anyone interested can submit photos and help with the mapping and identification process through the application. At some point Baraloto wants to train members of the public on how to take some of the simple measurements themselves and make it more of a citizen science project.

“We want to get people more involved in understanding the trees in their landscape," says Baraloto.

Screenshot from early research conducted by Grove ReLeaf on the app iNaturalist.
Credit iNaturalist screenshot

Once fully integrated, the data could better inform city leaders on future decisions about trees in the community.. As an example, Baraloto points to a massive tropical almond tree that he is taking measurements of, which is also on Main Highway.

The tropical almond grows quickly and provides a thick canopy of shade. Yet it is a non-native, and its seeds are widely dispersed by animals like squirrels.

"I think that -- having a tool such as this tree map would actually make it clearer for everyone to know -- listen, this tree is not just in the way. It's serving a purpose" - Katrina Morris

“If we prize shade over proximity to a natural area where this might invade and displace some of the hardwood hammock species that are native here -- then we would choose to plant this near an area like The Barnacle [State Park],” says Baraloto. “But if this were to fall over in a Hurricane, or if it were to die and come down, I think we need to have an informed discussion on whether we would replace this tree with one of the same species, or another species that from our database could be found to have some of the same positive aspects, but fewer negative ones.”

The project is starting in Coconut Grove because the neighborhood is known for its lush canopy, and it has become the epicenter of conversations about tree policy in the city.

“We’ve been looking at this from inside the city, and looking for that help -- to really get the data behind the concept,” says Ken Russell, the city commissioner who represents the neighborhood.

Russell says without the requisite data, the city has been making tree policy “not with the tree as a priority, and not with the environment as a priority.”

He remembers a plan the city had drawn up just after he was elected that would have cut 100 trees during a redesign of Bayshore Drive, a main artery of the Grove. He started asking questions about it.

Chris Baraloto is heading the Grove ReLeaf project. He is the director of International Center for Tropical Botany and an associate professor.

“And it was simply because they wanted a sidewalk on both sides of the street,” says Russell. “That would have wiped out an entire row of trees and shade that were making canopy for that road.”

The project was put on hold. The way Baraloto envisions it, this is exactly the kind of decision this project could help with in the future. After the Grove, Baraloto wants to spread it beyond the neighborhood and into the rest of the city, and perhaps beyond.

He wants people to get involved in the project and also use it as a tool to connect people to their surroundings, especially when it comes to landmark trees that can be found in nearly every neighborhood.

“One of the most important things that we want to capture that is not being captured by anyone else today is the historical legacy of some of these trees, and if we can tell some of those stories it adds value to these more mathematical calculations or economic calculations,” says Baraloto.

And the activists, too, are looking forward to what the project will produce. Katrina Morris says she anticipates it could also help developers make decisions for how they handle trees on a property they plan to develop.

“I think that -- having a tool such as this tree map would actually make it clearer for everyone to know -- listen, this tree is not just in the way. It’s serving a purpose,” she said.