City Tree Planting Program

Why Our Tree Planting Program Matters

Trees provide many valuable benefits to our residents. They shade our streets during the summer, clean our air and water, provide wildlife habitat, improve our mental wellbeing, and much more. 

According to our street tree inventory, Open Tree Map, Durham’s street trees provide $682,000 (2020 estimate) in annual benefits to our community through lower energy bills for residents, increased walkability because of shade provided during our hot summers, reduced noise pollution, stormwater filtration, improved air quality, and carbon dioxide removed as indicated in the table below. 

In addition to this, an internal analysis using the U.S. Forest Services’ iTree tool determined the value of trees in our City parks, cemeteries, and medians. The study found that trees in these public spaces remove approximately $1.4 million worth of carbon annually, which helps mitigate climate change. 

For these reasons it is important that we maintain a healthy urban forest. An effective tree planting program ensures that our urban forest remains vigorous for our present and future residents to enjoy.

Right: Estimated ecosystem services of Durham’s street trees according to the City of Durham’s Tree Inventory software, Open Tree Map. 

Ecosystem Benefits

Tree Planting Project Summary

Our goal is to plant 1,500 new street trees in City rights-of-way every year through 2025. The main goal of our planting project is to expand our street tree canopy into historically underserved and low-tree canopy neighborhoods as well as to replace unhealthy street trees removed each year. The number of trees being planted each year was determined from a 2017 Tree Canopy Assessment completed by Savatree and the University of Vermont. This study recommended that we plant 1,500 street trees per year in order to maintain and increase our street tree canopy in Durham.

A second 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested tree planting locations in our City rights-of-way that could maximize the benefits of trees to our residents. The study identified eight neighborhood groups through the U.S. Census that could benefit the most from street trees through increased shade and walkability, reduced air pollution, and targeted benefits to disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. A minimum of 85% of the 1,500 street trees we plan to plant each year will be going into these identified neighborhood groups with the hope of increasing environmental equity in Durham. The remaining 15% of tree plantings will be prioritized based upon replacement of unhealthy trees as well as resident requests, site suitability, and logistical concerns.

Right: This 2018 Tree Planting Prioritization Map was provided to the City of Durham by the U.S. EPA outlining eight Census Block Neighborhood Groups where we should focus our tree planting efforts.  

Priority Neighborhoods2

Expectations and Timeline of Project 

The majority of street tree plantings will be completed by staff in our General Services Department’s Urban Forestry Division. A few volunteer tree planting events conducted by our non-profit partner, Keep Durham Beautiful, will also contribute to the planting of street trees. Approximately two weeks before a tree planting occurs, our urban forestry crews will leave informational door hangers on nearby residences to inform them of the tree installations. Additionally, there will be flag and paint markings indicating the approximate locations of the new street trees in the rights-of-way. 

All planting locations will be inspected for underground utilities prior to planting to ensure that utilities will not be impacted during digging. Most tree planting projects take a few hours to a few days to complete, with minimal impacts to the street during installation. Since these newly planted trees are on City property, it is entirely the City’s responsibility to plant, prune, stake, and maintain the trees. However, it would be helpful if our residents could water the trees nearest to their properties during the hot summer months, although there is no resident obligation to water our street trees. Please note, the tree planting season begins in November and ends in March of the following calendar year.

Planting Material

We chose a larger variety of species every year dependent on what is available at select nurseries. Traditionally, our staff selects a variety of Oak, Elm, Maple, and Redbud among other species. Most trees planted are 1 inch in diameter and no taller than 7-8 feet. Our trees come in a variety of sizes and types, such as ball and burlap, bare root, and containerized material. We have a goal to never plant more than 10% of one species in a given year to ensure a diverse and resilient urban forest.

What are the City rights-of-way?

The rights-of-way (also referred to as “ROW”) is the area of land intended to remain open for public (or railroad) use upon which railroads and governments (state and local) maintain and exert control. The main use of the right-of-way is for transportation, but room for other government infrastructure exists there; hydrants, streetlights, signs, wires, pipes, sidewalks, etc. We distinguish between “City” and other rights-of-way because we don’t plant trees on state or private railway areas unless agreements are in place. 

Right-of-way widths vary drastically. In older residential areas it is typically 40 to 50’ wide reflecting narrow streets, minimal setbacks and lower traffic speeds and volumes, but it can be much wider in more recently developed areas outside of the dense urban core. In virtually all cases the pavement doesn’t take up the full width. The area “left-over” is where we plant trees.

A typical example is where a 30’ wide street sits upon a 50’ wide right-of-way. In this case there is typically 10’ left over on either side for amenities such as sidewalks and “tree lawns”. In the same scenario without sidewalks, that 10’ of “left-over” area is indistinguishable from a private lawn, except maybe for some buried utilities indicated by objects such as water meters, gas valves or fire hydrants.  

In some cases, the rights-of way may only extend a few feet behind the curb on either side of the roadway while on some blocks it can be 20+ feet where some future need was anticipated (like a road widening or sewer-line expansion). A good way to determine the city rights-of-way near your home is to identify utilities. For instance, if you see a water meter or utility pole then you are looking at City rights-of-way. This roadside area is where we plant street trees because they provide shade to the sidewalks and/or roadways and insure that the city will maintain them into the future.  

How to Get Involved

The City’s non-profit partner, Keep Durham Beautiful, currently raises funds and coordinates volunteer opportunities to support our tree planting efforts. If you would like to contribute to our goal of maintaining and expanding urban tree canopy, visit to make a donation or volunteer. 

Another way to support our efforts is to make a donation through your water bill to our Water Into Trees Program. Your donation through this optional program will be used exclusively by our Urban Forestry Division to purchase additional trees for City streets, parks, and green spaces. For more information and to make a donation, visit

Which Neighborhoods Will Get Trees During the November 2020-March 2021 Planting Season?

Neighborhoods selected for the first year of our project are the Southside Neighborhood including streets surrounding Hillside Park, Shepard Middle School and North Carolina Central University (NCCU), and Weaver/Braggtown Neighborhoods including streets surrounding Lakeview Park and Red Maple Park. 

How to Request New Trees in Your Neighborhood

If there is planting space along the City rights-of-way in your neighborhood, you may be eligible for a new street tree. We have a tree request program where residents can request a street tree be planted in front of their home. Visit our Urban Forestry webpage and click the link “Tree Request Form” if you would like to request a street tree. 


We are working hard to increase our urban forest and bring the many environmental and economic benefits of street trees in our City rights-of-way to our low tree canopy neighborhoods. If you have any questions or concerns about this five-year project, please contact Urban Forestry Supervisor Dan Hickey at or (919) 560-4197 ext. 35219.

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