As clouds parted above the Ogontz Avenue Rite Aid, Ashley Schmid asked her volunteers a simple question: "What do trees do?"

Fielding a few tentative responses, the outreach coordinator for the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF) answered for them.

"They absorb and filter water," she offered.

To illustrate the flow of the water absent porous surfaces, she dropped a piece of paper on the pharmacy's non-porous parking lot. The wind began to carry it away.

Reaching down to retrieve the sheet, Schmid informed the volunteers that hard surfaces direct water and trash to sewers, which flow into creeks, which then drain into the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.

Then, she then asked another simple question: "Do you know where our drinking water comes from?"

Mapping trees

In its effort to improve regional water quality, beautify the city and address quality-of-life issues, TTF — in conjunction with Earth Force and AmeriCorps — surveyed areas of West Oak Lane on Tuesday to identify possible locations for tree-planting.

The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department currently has funding to install trees in various locations throughout the city.

To stretch this money as far as possible, volunteers were sent out to scout neighborhoods using a "turf map," which is a check-list that aids in identifying street addresses for possible planting locations.

When this work is completed, TTF will relay the information to the Parks and Recreation Dept., who will then dispatch contractors to complete the actual digging and planting.

At $300 a dig, Schmid emphasized the importance of streamlining operations for all parties. She also outlined the importance of the project to both regional and municipal initiatives.

Project goals

Statewide, the West Oak Lane tree survey conforms to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's "Plant One Million" project, an effort by PHS, the Delaware Center for Horticulture and the New Jersey Tree Foundation to sow one million trees throughout the tri-state area.

So far, more than 152,000 tress have been planted, according to the website of Plant One Million, a project that also aims to restore 30-percent tree canopy coverage — when viewed from above — throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

Locally, the tree survey forms a cornerstone to the Philadelphia Water Department's "Green City, Clean Water" project, a 25-year plan designed to protect city watersheds by managing storm water through greening efforts.

Via the use of aerial mapping, Schmid indicated that West Oak Lane was selected as a "model" neighborhood for surveying — and eventual planting — as it had a desirable level of tree coverage.

TTF's Executive Director Julie Slavet explained that West Oak Lane and Frankford are the only neighborhoods in the Delaware River watershed currently selected for street-level surveying.

"If there is anything we can do to get trees planted in our watershed," Slavet said, "we're interested in helping."

AmeriCorps involvement

Dan Brown, service learning coordinator for Earth Force, explained that the participation of AmeriCorps volunteers in Tuesday's tree survey is connected to the 2012 AmeriCorps Week, an annual event which supports community service projects.

"The goal," said AmeriCorps volunteer Linnea McCalla, "is to raise awareness of the work that people are doing in the community."

Even in the midst of surveying their efforts began to have impact.

Brown said that two women from a neighborhood block association approached him and asked if he would to speak to their group about the impacts of stormwater runoff.

With dedicated outreach and education, Schmid said, "People get excited about trees."

Slavet observed that public perception of all things arboreal is changing for the better.

"We're at a tipping point," she said, "for people seeing trees as a positive thing."


Video by Kimberly Paynter