Tree City USA

40-Year Tree City USA Community: Westerville, Ohio

By Amber Filipi | July 29, 2016

Tree City USA is celebrating 40 years! The following guest post is part of a Tree City USA series that features the 16 communities that have been recognized all 40 years of the program.


Westerville’s heritage, natural beauty and careful planning make it a special place to call home. And Money Magazine agrees, having twice recognized Westerville as one of America’s “Best Places to Live.”

Westerville City Hall anchors the historic Uptown District which marries new-generation shopping, dining, and entertainment.

Westerville City Hall anchors the historic Uptown District which marries new-generation shopping, dining, and entertainment.

Located just 10 miles from the state capital of Columbus, Westerville is a bustling city of more than 37,000 residents, a leader in job creation, and home to an award-winning parks and recreation department. With more than 40 community parks and open spaces, 30 miles of recreational trails and 13,000 street trees, it’s easy to see why residents refer to Westerville as “a city within a park.”

Westerville has continued its tradition of excellence in their Urban Forestry Division, celebrating 40 years as a Tree City USA this spring. Westerville Parks and Urban Forest Manager, Matt Ulrey, discusses the recent milestone and the division.

How has the division grown to where it is now?

MU: For decades Westerville has been committed to tree preservation and expanding the urban forest. Staff has always organized tree planting within the parks and helped homeowners with street trees. Until 1999, this work was completed by City employees who had other job duties in addition to basic tree maintenance. With the establishment of a division specifically tasked with tree care, Westerville now has a clear direction for its urban forest operation.

During the past 15 years, the division has grown its services and mission into the nationally recognized program it is today. Here are some of Westerville’s peak urban forestry moments:

  • The first full-time staff member was hired specifically for urban forestry work in 1999. By 2002, two additional full-time forestry staff were added to the division and industry equipment and tools were acquired.
  • In 2007, Emerald Ash Borer was confirmed in Westerville; and by 2014 virtually all ash trees had been removed or died from infestation.
  • An analysis of the city tree inventory was done using iTree software in 2008. The data from this analysis guided the revision of the City Tree Master Plan. The plan update was officially completed in 2015.
  • The City Sidewalk Reconstruction Program began in 2009 to replace every tree that was removed.
  • In 2013, new technologies in tree care have allowed for the retention of nearly every street tree affected by the annual sidewalk program. This allows the trees to have a chance to thrive rather than be cut down and replaced.
  • In 2015, Westerville became an SMA-accredited city.
  • Westerville celebrated 40 years as a Tree City USA in 2016. The City is one of just 16 communities in the United States to reach this milestone.

What is your focus as the Westerville Urban Forest Manager?

Every summer, the Westerville Parks and Recreation Department hosts a series of family concerts at the community’s amphitheater. The amphitheater is situated in Alum Creek Park North, Westerville’s first park dating back to 1934.

Every summer, the Westerville Parks and Recreation Department hosts a series of family concerts at the community’s amphitheater. The amphitheater is situated in Alum Creek Park North, Westerville’s first park dating back to 1934.

MU: As the Urban Forest Manager, I am responsible for the long-term and short-term goals of the division, including the City Tree Master Plan, which involves all of our services and our vision for the tree canopy for decades to come. A large part of my position includes responding to resident requests. I follow the process from the initial inquiry to inspection and final completion of the task.

I also work with urban forestry staff to prioritize department needs. Our team consists of myself, an arborist specialist, arborist worker, and one part-time arborist. They do the majority of our cycle pruning and daily work requests like tree removal. We also contract some services including tree planting.

What unique challenges has your urban forestry division faced?

MU: The Bradford Pear was named the City tree in the 1970’s and planted extensively throughout the City as a street tree and in the parks. As you may know, this created extensive need for debris cleanup as the trees matured. Many hours were spent picking up fallen limbs following storm events. It was not uncommon to have branches breaking on nice sunny days. This has afforded the opportunity for species diversity as replacement trees have been planted over the years.

Emerald Ash Borer, an exotic beetle harmful to ash trees, was also a challenge for us, as it has been for many communities in this part of the country. We struggled in the beginning with the reliability of data supporting the use of chemicals to protect the trees. Thankfully, additional funding was approved to help deal with the issue; and overall, normal services continued uninterrupted.

How do you evaluate your street trees and maximize their performance?

MU: We routinely evaluate trees for risk to help mitigate potential problems and create a stronger tree population. We check the health of the trees and determine if we can improve the tree’s condition, or if removal and replacement is the better option. Planting sites are measured for root space (the distance between the curb and sidewalk) and canopy space available. The goal is to plant the largest tree species possible, within our guidelines, for each site to maximize the value our urban forest canopy provides. We are using a variety of species since we can’t guarantee what is going to happen with climate change. Some of the City’s most commonly planted trees are Swamp White Oak, London Planetree, Dawn Redwood, Sawtooth Oak, Kentucky Coffeetree, Frontier Elm, Pacific Sunset Maple, Japanese Tree Lilac and Amur Maackia.

What are some of the technologies you are employing? 

MU: Currently, we use Geographic Information System (GIS) to catalog the City’s trees. It has proven very helpful as a management tool. We have also utilized iTree to assess our inventory. These assessments have helped establish a baseline for comparison in the future.

Westerville Parks and Recreation volunteers remove invasive honeysuckle during the annual “Make a Difference Day” cleanup event at Boyer Nature Preserve.

Volunteers clear invasive honeysuckle during the “Make a Difference Day” cleanup at Boyer Nature Preserve.

What are some specific ways you involve the community?  

MU: The division hosts multiple volunteer events throughout the year to improve natural areas and plant street trees. One common activity is the removal of invasive plant species followed by the planting of native trees and shrubs to bolster the environment in a more natural way.

For more than 30 years, the City has hosted an annual Arbor Day Art Contest to connect elementary students with trees. Kids learn about trees and are able to submit artwork to be judged for awards. Each Arbor Day, the winning child gets a tree planted in their honor at their school or other approved location.

The winner of the 2015 Arbor Day Art Contest plants a new tree at her school in Westerville.

The winner of the 2015 Arbor Day Art Contest plants a new tree at her school.


What is the significance of Westerville being a Tree City USA for 40 years?

MU: It is an honor to be one of 16 communities recognized annually since the inception of Tree City USA. The program has helped Westerville strive to be greener, celebrate our urban forest, and grow arbor initiatives and the tree canopy.

To be a part of a city that supports trees not only at the government level, but as a community as whole is wonderful. Our residents truly value street trees and the extensive parks system. There is an undeniable sense of community pride and ownership for the trees in Westerville. And over the past 40 years, residents and visitors have seen how a commitment to trees brings numerous benefits to Westerville, and ultimately, leads to a healthier and happier lifestyle for all.

Where is the Westerville Urban Forestry Division headed next?

MU: We have the ongoing goal to increase the scope of our urban forest. Specifically, we want to grow the canopy cover from 34% to 40%. We’re well on our way to reaching 13,500 street trees by 2020, which was a target set by the Westerville Shade Tree Commission nearly 10 years ago. To reach that objective, we’re working on an inventory of plantable sites along the streets throughout the City. It would be wonderful to one day have 50% tree canopy and 20,000 street trees. And of course, we hope to be a Tree City USA for years to come!

To learn more about Westerville and its urban forestry initiatives, visit or connect with us on Facebook at City of Westerville.

Story and photos provided by the City of Westerville.

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