Elisa VonBehren (right) and her father, Trees Forever’s ReLeaf project manager Kent VonBehren, place the turf back around the base of a tree they planted in the median along Grande Avenue in southeast Cedar Rapids on June 1, 2022. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — When Cedar Rapids officials set out to craft an urban forestation plan after the 2020 derecho’s ferocious winds toppled most of the city’s tree canopy, they hoped it would be a model for other communities to follow after a natural disaster to revive their canopies.

Recognition the ReLeaf Cedar Rapids plan — a public-private partnership between the city, Marion-based nonprofit Trees Forever and expert consultants — received last week moves the team closer to that goal.

The ambitious $37 million plan to replenish Cedar Rapids’ decimated tree canopy in 10 years was honored in Charlotte, North Carolina with a Congress for the New Urbanism 2023 Charter Award in the Region: Metropolis, City, and Town category. This is the leading organization that promotes walkable, mixed-use development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.

Speck & Associates led by internationally renowned city planner Jeff Speck and local landscape architecture firm Confluence, the experts who helped draft the plan, were specifically recognized.


Renowned city planner Jeff Speck (right) and Patrick Alford, principal of local landscape architecture firm Confluence, wait to be introduced during the Trees Forever Our Woodland Legacy annual symposium at Kirkwood Center in southwest Cedar Rapids on Dec. 9, 2021. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Other recipients of the Charter Award — the world’s preeminent award for urban design, place-making and community building — include:

Albany Skyway, Albany, New York—Stantec Consulting ServicesHearth: Memorial to the Enslaved at William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia — BaskervillLarkin Place, Elgin, Illinois — Full Circle Development and Cordogan ClarkPullman Artspace Lofts, Chicago—Stantec Architecture Inc.

“When you see the other communities being acknowledged, it’s nice to be recognized because this will help us get the word out to other communities about what we’ve done as a community in Cedar Rapids,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said.

The full list of charter, merit and student award winners is available at cnu.org/what-we-do/charter-awards.


To learn more and view the ReLeaf plan, visit CityofCR.com/ReLeaf. For additional information and to donate, go to treesforever.org/releaf/.

Speck said attendees of the conference — which draws developers, bankers, municipal officials and others from around the world who are all invested in making better, more walkable places — embraced the plan’s intersection between urban forestry and place-making. They also were shocked and compelled by Cedar Rapids’ derecho story.

Seeing the ReLeaf plan, Speck said they were interested in how the ReLeaf rules might apply to other places across the world, particularly in the U.S.

In the 10th anniversary edition of Speck’s bestselling urban design book “Walkable City,” he included the story of the derecho and ReLeaf Cedar Rapids plan.

The plan calls for the replanting of 42,000 trees on public parks and rights of way with a focus on equity and place-making, prioritizing the most vulnerable neighborhoods. It also includes principles that any property owner can follow to replant on their own private properties:

Big Not Small: A small-species tree should not be planted where a large-species tree will thrive.Locals Not Imports: Native trees that support native animals and insects should be planted to fuel the food web.Tots Not Teens: Trees should be planted when they’re young if they can be protected. Transplanting a more mature tree can curtail its growth. Let Trees Mingle: Trees planted close together share nutrients and information through their root systems, so they should be planted close together where possible.

“I’m hopeful the plan’s dissemination encourages a lot of people to look at their own yards and properties and do their part,” Speck said.

Not being an urban forester, Speck said it was a tremendous amount of work for Confluence to teach him — “an old dog learning new tricks.”

“It gives me a real sense of accomplishment to have gone outside my comfort zone to have learned new stuff that I hope will benefit Cedar Rapids,” Speck said. “You get out of life what you put into it, and if effort’s any indication, I put a lot into this plan.”


Renowned city planner Jeff Speck speaks about the ReLeaf plan during the Trees Forever Our Woodland Legacy annual symposium at Kirkwood Center in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Pomeranz quickly mobilized the ReLeaf partners not long after the derecho struck Cedar Rapids to begin to work toward ensuring future generations could have a vibrant, diverse tree canopy to enjoy.

The city’s swift response to the loss of trees and effort to draft a reforestation plan — especially one with such intentional consideration of species diversity and equity in location — can be a model to other communities, Pomeranz said.

“The work we’re doing to plant trees and the number of trees has not been done anywhere else in the world,” Pomeranz said. “We’re very pleased to be a model for other communities across the world as events have taken trees from their community.”

According to a city dashboard, 4,708 ReLeaf trees have been planted so far. The city has committed at least $1 million annually toward ReLeaf for 10 years, plus funds to water the new trees.

Since the Cedar Rapids City Council adopted the ReLeaf plan in February 2022, Trees Forever has worked to rally support among private donors and mobilize volunteers around the replanting effort. Programs such as neighborhood “tree captains” work to rally community involvement at a grassroots level.

Shannon Ramsay, Trees Forever founder and foundation trustee, said the award puts the importance of urban forests at the forefront of the urban planning realm.

“It is forward thinking,” Ramsay said of the plan. “There’s never been a plan like it in the world of planning.”

It’s key that the partnership maintains momentum with the entire community, Ramsay said. Trees Forever is nearly halfway to its private fundraising goal of $7 million. The city and Trees Forever are also seeking tree planting funds through the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

“We have tremendous volunteer help at all levels, whether it’s planting or watering or helping raise dollars,” Ramsay said.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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Marissa Payne