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Thank you, Mrs. Sharpe.

The cit of Providence is a model of progressive urban greening, thanks to this pair of tough-minded women.


No one could say no to Mary Elizabeth Sharpe. Not even the mayor.

In the late 1970s, toward the end of her long life, Mrs. Henry D. Sharpese-If-made businesswoman, philanthropist, and wife of Brown University's chancellor-felt the need to sound off about the trees of her adopted city of Providence, Rhode Island. So she "invited" the mayor to the elegant French chateau where she lived for 54 years.

"She insisted I couldn't leave before I saw the flowers in her garden," recalls Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. with a grin.

Command appearances were Mrs. Sharpe's style. Back in the 1960s, she realized that a row of yews she'd planted in Providence was languishing from lack of water. So she did what any strong-willed, determined New England woman would do: She commandeered a tank truck from the city's fire department.

Today her daughter-in-law Peggy (Mrs. Henry D. Sharpe Jr.) carries on the family tradition. Mary Elizabeth Sharpe was a self-taught landscape architectPeggy Sharpe by pure hapenstance has a degree in landscape architecture form the Rhode Island School of Design.

Also like her mother in law, Peggy Sharpe-a longtime environmentalist-has proved to be a Lady Bountiful for Providence. She raised $500,000 from founddations and private individuals for planting trees and then lobbied the mayor until he agreed to earmark a $1 million bond issue for greening the city.

As a result of these two remarkable women, Providence today has one of the nation's most progressive tree programs. A portion of the bond issue paid for a computerized inventory of the city's street trees. "We know where every single tree is," says Mayor Cianci. The next step was a tree-management plan that puts Providence on the cutting edge of urban forestry since only 17 percent of the nation's cities have master plans for street trees.

What's more, Peggy Sharpe gathered a talented group that includes a college president, landscape architects, and community activists to serve as the Providence Street Tree Task Force. With Peggy acting as catalyst, the task force developed an innovative program in which free trees are given to qualifying neighborhoods. After only three years, the task force has a network of no fewer than 98 neighborhood tree-planting groups.

During its startup period the network planted 770 balled-and burlapped street trees 10 to 15 feet tall. The neighborhood groups are composed mostly of homeowners with a direct stake in the trees' welfare. As a result, the task force reports a low loss rate of only 4 percent.

The tale of Providence's first benefactress actually begins in Syracuse, New York, in 1897.

Sharpe family lore has it that gold fever gripped Mary Elizabeth's father, who left Syracuse for the Klondike and never returned. The deserted wife was distraught, and it fell to eldest daughter Mary Elizabeth-then only 12-to undertake the family's support.

In a silver-spoon version of the Horatio Alger story, this scion of a prominent family began making candy in her mother's kitchen and peddling it door to door. Before long, her candy company-Mary Elizabeth's was a household name in Syracuse. As the years passed, she wrote cookbooks and opened a chain of tearooms and candy shops that gained her company a national reputation.

Well into her 30s and never married she took time off for a horseback vacation in Wyoming. There she met Henry Sharpe, long-time chancellor of Brown University and head of Brown and Sharpe Mfg. Co.-a Providence firm that began making machine tools in 1833 and employed 11,000 workers at its peak. Henry Sharpe's dual career and civic-minded activities had kept him an eligible bachelor. The career woman had found romance.

She and Henry Sharpe-then 50-were married. They built a 20,000-squarefoot French chateau and staffed it with 13 servants, and she bore a child, Hank junior. As the years passed, Henry Senior took his son on expeditions out West, including an early American Forestry Association horseback trip with AMERICAN FORESTS editor Ovid Butler.

After his father's death, Hank junior took over at Brown and Sharpe, but his real loves are video and poetry (see "The Lookout" on page 53). The poems express a side of his nature inherited from a mother who combined business sense with dreamy mysticism. Her daughter-in-law remembers Mrs. Sharpe as "self-confident, imaginative, witty, charming, and a risk-taker. "

The elder Mrs. Sharpe was also an art lover. She served on the advisory board of the prestigious Museum of Modern Art and found an outlet for her aesthetic sensitivities by designing a garden for her chateau. Her work apparently impressed Brown University's president-a fact that was to prove significant for Providence.

In 1951 Hank Junior helped with an article Mrs. Sharpe penned explaining how she happened to become the university's volunteer landscape architect. Underneath a catchy title, "Now Brown Is GREEN," she wrote: "When [Brown's president] asked me for my idea of a good planting plan .. I bit like a hungry trout, and forgetting that a university chancellor's wife doesn't usually do such things, I was off . "

To the elms that graced the campus, she added yews and flowering trees chosen for aesthetics, winter hardiness, and low upkeep and initial cost. Another Providence grande dame, Carol Haffenreffer, recalls helping lay out the planting sites. "I remember holding one end of a measuring tape," she says, with Mary Elizabeth's chauffeur on the other end. "

Another tale tells of a student in the 60s walking across campus bowing to each tree and mumbling, "Thank you, Mrs. Sharpe. Thank you, Mrs. Sharpe.

When Mrs. Sharpe finished with Brown, she started on Providence.

She had already worked with the city's park director on an exquisite Japanese Garden, which overnight became the most popular spot in Providence for wedding pictures. She went on to plant an avenue of honeylocusts at the imposing state capitol downtown.

In 1961 she established an annual tree fund of $3,000 and persuaded the city council to match her contribution. Says Mayor Cianci today: "Mrs. Sharpe initiated a partnership with the city that established a habit of cooperation."

By the mid-1970s over 3,000 new trees had been planted as a result. To diversify the tree population on the city's 400 miles of streets, Mrs. Sharpe introduced London plane trees, willows, oaks, lindens, and red maples. One mayor dubbed her Providence's Tree Lady.

In an article she wrote for The Providence journal in 1962, she told the city that it was time to "think green." Flowerpots are not enough, she scolded. What's needed, in her words, are whole green belts. "

She offered the example of a parking lot operator who paid each year to have his unpaved lot cleared of new growth. Mrs. Sharpe persuaded him instead to allow the "baby ailanthus trees" to grow up. Four years later, shade from the trees slowed new growth, cut his mowing bills, and kept the parked cars from baking. "Most important," she wrote, "the new trees have transformed what used to be a car park into what is almost now a city park. It all goes to prove that 'thinking green' doesn't necessarily cost money. Sometimes it even saves money!"

Her crowning achievement was India Point Park, a waterfront recreation area.

India Point was a shipyard that had deteriorated into a scrap heap, and Mrs. Sharpe had long dreamed of cleaning it up. In the 1960s she donated $153,000, persuaded the city to put up a matching amount, and then spearheaded a drive for a HUD grant of $380,000. The pooled private, city, and federal funds paid for renovating the wharf, constructing a tree-lined promenade, boathouse, playgrounds, picnic areas, and bike paths.

Age finally caught up with Mary Elizabeth Sharpe. She had never believed in committees ("all they do is talk, talk, talk"), but she asked her daughter-in-law for help. Peggy is not even a resident of Providence, but she offered to recruit garden-club members to form a tree committee.

The committee persuaded the city to hire a professional forester. John Campanini, a native of Providence with degrees in natural resources and plant pathology, started work in 1976. He is now the city's chief parks planner and a certified nurseryman. Several years ago he pushed through a tough tree ordinance modeled after Cincinnati's that requires a permit to cut street trees.

Campanini researched the city's tree history and learned that Providence had an estimated 50,000 street trees in 1907. Most were already a century old, and over the following decades the population dropped dramatically, spurted up briefly from planting campaigns, then entered a slow, steady decline. In the 1950s 50 percent of what remained were elms. After Dutch elm disease did its grim slaughter, elms comprised less than 4 percent.

A 1977 tree census showed only 16,630 street trees remaining. Campanini aggressively pursued federal funds and began planting callery pear, sweet gum, and green ash. A net gain of 5,000 brought the total up to 22,230 by 1988. But the 1980s were the Reagan decade, and by 1988 the federal funds had dried up.

Enter Peggy Sharpe.

Her mother-in-law had died in 1985 at the age of 100 but had left an endowment for landscaping the city. As Providence's forestry budget declined, Peggy decided to allocate $100,000 to set up a tree fund-the Mary Elizabeth Sharpe Street Tree Endowment-if a matching $100,000 could be raised.

Peggy and Hank junior, both experienced fundraisers, fired up their computer and began making lists and writing letters. A designer contributed a brochure and logo. "We invited the mayor and my motherin-law's best friends to a kickoff at her house," Peggy recalls. Thus was born the Providence Street Tree Task Force.

Over the following five years, the tree kitty grew and now totals almost $500,000. "We were able to leverage my mother-inlaw's money into a chunk big enough to count, " says Peggy. "Thousands of dollars came from individuals, but tens of thousands came from foundations. " He refuses to take the credit. "You can't do it alone in this world," she says. "Maybe you could in my mother-inlaw's world, but today it has got to be a groundswell. And I think that's what we're beginning to have with all these neighborhood groups. It was [task force members] Debbie Schimberg and Carol Golden who came up with a specific outline for the neighborhood program." It was that program that sold the foundations.

Like her mother-in-law, Peggy Sharpe is self-confident, assertive, and an independent thinker. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where her father was a land developer-but one who would ride the bulldozer himself to save trees. He taught Peggy to love Florida's intimate lagoons so much that after her marriage she turned down an oceanside home in favor of a secluded pond.

In the early 1970s she became the environmental coordinator for a project funded by a Conservation Foundation grant looking for solutions to the solid-waste dilemma. She also served for 10 years alongside Mrs. David Rockefeller Jr. on the board of directors of The Nature Conservancy.

"Peggy is one of those rare people who was in conservation before it was popular," says David Morine, a former vice president with The Nature Conservancy. "She appreciates nature for itself and not because it's trendy. Twenty years from now, if Providence has trees, it will be thanks to Peggy Sharpe. "

That refrain-"thanks to Mrs. Sharpe"-is repeated almost like a mantra by members of the task force. The 1987 bond issue-they invariably say-was her doing.

Over half of the $1 million went to paying for the removal of a backlog of hazardous trees that built up when the federal dollars stopped flowing. City park superintendent Nancy Derrig recalls touring the city after much of the work was done and Hurricane Bob had just roared through. "You could tell where the trimming had taken place," she recalls. "Some streets looked like war zones; others were pretty clear. "

It was the computer inventory that revealed the need for mass removals. To do the inventory, city forester Campanini hired an urban environmental consulting firm, ACRT, based in Kent, Ohio. ACRT's foresters collected the data in the field, standing in front of each tree and talking into hand-held computers. They fed in the neighborhood, address, and even the tree's relative location on the property by means of a grid system developed by ACRT. They also noted its species, diameter, height, condition, life expectancy, and maintenance needs-ranging from removal to routine pruning.

In addition to inventorying extant trees, the ACRT report pinpointed potential planting sites. Fed into the database were the size of each available space; whether the site is grassed or paved with concrete, asphalt, or brick; whether overhead utility wires are present; and eventual clearance requirements (so a species can be planted that will not obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic).

All this information was later electronically uploaded to ACRT's Tree Manager" software. Today the computer can call up a list of each street's tree population house by house. A technician keeps the database up to date by entering all plantings, removals, service requests, and maintenance work.

Sitting at the computer, John Campanini punches in Sisson Street and then his own address, where the computer lists two callery pear trees, each 20 feet tall and 12 inches DBH (diameter at breast height), both in good condition. He creates a bar graph and pie chart visualizing the percentages represented by each species on Sisson Street and the planting spaces available. He does in seconds what would have taken him four hours to do by hand.

The completed inventory revealed that Providence's forest had once again become a monoculture. Instead of elms, 46.7 percent of the city's street trees are now Norway maples. As a result of the inventory, the management plan calls for a complete moratorium on planting Norway maples.

The inventory also showed that Providence's street trees are worth a cool $33 million, a calculation based on a formula developed by the International Society of Arboriculture. It is expected that this figure will carry some weight with the city council once the master plan is presented to them.

Peggy Sharpe and John Campanini are refining ACRT's management proposals into a master plan and planting maps to guide Providence over the next 50 years. "We analyzed the city neighborhood by neighborhood," says Campanini, "and using a formula of existing trees versus available planting sites, we ranked priority streets." Streets with few trees, no overhead wires, low anticipated management costs, and grass instead of concrete planting sites received a high ranking because new trees on those streets would have a better chance of survival.

"Before, when we took budget requests to the city council," he says, we just had guesstimates. Now we have hard data."

The next step is to develop political support, and that's where the neighborhood groups come in. "The groups provide a constituency that's supportive of urban forestry," Peggy points out.

Her timetable is to present the master plan to the council over the course of this year. One by one, council members will be invited along with community activists in their wards to look over the plan and give their own rankings for priority streets. In that way, political considerations-what people want-will be interwoven with the scientific side-what the inventory showed is needed.

Many community activists are already involved as leaders of tree groups-either on residential or commercial streets. One man is spearheading a drive to commit the Rotary Club to planting 100 to 200 trees a year in the downtown area.

Leslie Urgo, who coordinates the neighborhood groups, explains that the groups almost always come into existence when "a resident on the street calls in, usually after the loss of a major tree. " Urgo is paid by the Sharpe Endowment but works out of the parks department offices-an example of Providence's unusually close public-private cooperation.

Urgo advises the caller to canvas the neighborhood. If the neighbors agree to plant a minimum of five trees-large plantings are more cost-effective -they file an application to receive a grant for no-cost trees. The grants are bankrolled by the Sharpe endowment and matching city funds. The process is competitive: The endowment received 23 applications last fall but could fund only 14.

Those with approved applications attend a workshop on the do's and don'ts of planting and caring for trees-watering, mulching, weeding, and protecting them from neighborhood children. Says Campanini of the neighborhood groups, "They become our tree wardens."

To permit as many residents as possible to take part, most plantings are held on Saturdays. Everyone gets involved, even if it's just making coffee or providing doughnuts. "I went to one neighborhood last spring," says Urgo, "that had a barbecue. People can't believe it after they're done and see the instant trees. They take photos of the kids. One family had their daughter's first birthday party under their tree. They're hoping it will grow as she does."

Individuals whose neighbors show a lack of interest have the option of going another route. The homeowner can pay half the cost ($75 per tree), with the city picking up the rest of the tab and planting the tree. The same basic program exists for commercial streets, except that the cost is slightly higher since most of those sites require removal of concrete instead of just digging a hole.

Over half the streets that have been planted are in low-income neighborhoods. In those areas, it usually takes an anchor organization like a senior-citizens center to start the ball rolling. To attract more Hispanic neighborhoods, the task force plans to put out a Spanish version of the grant application form.

The goal is to plant 1,000 trees a year, eventually increasing the canopy of street trees from 25 percent to 60 percent. To help achieve this objective, Campanini has established a tree farm on four acres of land in a public park. The farm has 2,200 saplings that were purchased when they were small and inexpensive. After several seasons on the farm, they will be ready for the streets.

Critics of the tree farm charge that it is not as cost-effective as buying street-ready trees in quantity from commercial nurseries. Campanini replies that 500 trees a year will still be purchased from Rhode Island nurserymen, but the additional 500 a year supplied by the tree farm will permit the city to meet its annual planting goal.

The Boston Globe lavished high praise on Providence recently by writing that the smaller city's "recent efforts to restore its green infrastructure put Boston to shame." The story pointed out that Providence, although only one-fourth the size of Boston, plants nearly twice as many trees each year.

Mrs. Sharpe would no doubt be pleased to see that Providence is greening up. Still, the future holds challenges: The newly planted trees will need intensive care. To provide maintenance, Providence has an innovative proposal. A small federal grant is helping establish Young Tree Care Teams composed of park workers pulled from other duties during slack winter periods and trained to do jobs that don't require an arborist. The teams will more than double the regular forestry workforce.

To keep this program going, task force chairman Timothy More hopes that Narragansett Electric will subsidize removals of hazardous trees. Replacement plantings of low-growing species could greatly reduce Narragansett's trimming costs and power outages from storms.

"We need systematic block-by-block maintenance, not just haphazard, crisis maintenance," Peggy Sharpe insists. "The endowment's only half the apple. The other half is maintenance."

When John Campanini goes out on the speaking circuit, he tells other towns: "We did a lot of poor planning, but now we're changing that. You have your Toledos, Cincinnatis, Milwaukees that have a tradition of being progressive in urban forestry. Those are the towns I'm trying to emulate. "

Notice he doesn't mention Boston. Guess the Bean Town is one city that could learn a little from Providence. And from the new Tree Lady.

I strolled as in a childhood dream, Up the woodsroad toward the stream. Around my feet, in memory's womb, Still grew the moss in moistened gloom `Mid blue-grey spruce trees shading all, With lichened bark, their soaring

A dream indeed! For around me now, As I passed the curve and neared the slough, There was no sign of the glade once known; The scenes of childhood had totally flown. And in the place of hoary trees I saw a forest upon its knees.

Slash and tangle, splintered trunk, Brush and weed and rotting junk Replaced the memory of what once had been A place of worship, far from din, My soul felt darkened by a shroud. -Was this a gain?" I asked aloud.

At last the granite knob was reached, Where once a lookout tower breached:

T'was all delight to passers-through, Who from its top drank-in the view, And caught some glint of other worlds: How space, and time, . . and life, unfurl. But as in the wood that now I'd walked, just memories of that tower stalked; Its structure too by time had swayed, To rotting timbers, disarrayed. And only childhood shouts aloud Still pierced my dark nostalgic shroud. Change comes: a brutal shock to see; Must ugliness its handmaid be? We owe to Change a sense of beauty, An ingrained reverence, all as Duty; And then we need to build anew Lookouts to glimpse that future view.

-Henry D. Sharpe Jr.

Acclaimed by Newsweek as one of America's 10 best cities, Providence (population, 165,000; metropolitan area, 500,000) has come alive over the last decade. It has just broken ground for an ambitious $365-million waterfront reclamation that will involve moving two rivers and constructing a grassy esplanade to connect with the India Point park developed by Mary Elizabeth Sharpe.

Providence started out as a shipping and manufacturing center. But then, as someone once said, progress passed Rhode Island by. Had the state and its biggest city been more prosperous, the urban renewal craze of the 1960s would have leveled Providence's historic buildings. Instead, the city is a pleasing mix of new and old. -NORAH DEAKIN DAvis
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Urban Forests; tree management in Providence, Rhode Island administered by Mary Elizabeth Sharpe and her daughter-in-law, Peggy
Author:Davis, Norah Deakin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Adventures of a big-tree photographer.
Next Article:Soft-hat management for southern forests.

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