September 13, 2021 /
Jona Elwell

How DC Gives Urban Trees a Second Life

Last week was the inaugural Urban Tree Summit field session. We spent the day at Montgomery County’s Pope Farm Nursery where they had a live sawmill demo and chatted about all this urban wood reuse. There are so many uses for urban trees after they are removed – high-value woods can be used in public spaces for benches, signs, tree stakes, and more. Spending the day with fellow urban forest enthusiasts and some familiar faces reminded us of the great work we’re doing with our friends at the Urban Forestry Division of DDOT and we wanted to reshare!

Trees provide myriad benefits, they clean the air, absorb stormwater, save energy, mitigate climate change, create healthier communities, calm traffic, build better businesses, support wildlife, and even beautify our streets. While we reap most benefits from trees while they’re alive and growing, the advantages of urban trees now continue even after they’ve been felled (cut down). 

Introducing the Urban Wood Reuse program! Spearheaded by the District Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Division (UFD) and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), this program gives our street trees a second chance. Wood products made from felled street trees serve as a living classroom and natural storage lockers for carbon, all the while connecting students to the natural resources around them.

Urban Forestry Division Arborist Shaun McKim (left) operating the mill at the Casey Tree Farm with Arborist Sam Doan (right) and UFD Associate Director Earl Eutsler (middle).

How does this happen? Failing or injured trees scheduled for removal are recycled into benches, stools, and other materials in public school gardens and outdoor classrooms. 

So how does a city take enormous street trees and turn them into benches for the public good? It’s easy when community partners work together! We’re thrilled to be able to provide a solution to the limited space and resource availability in DC. Thankfully the Casey Trees Farm in Berryville, VA not only has space for storing both the logs and lumber produced by street trees, but we have a sawmill that is ideal for this type of work – it’s capable of milling 100-inch circumference trees! 

UFD Arborists operate the mill about twice a month to produce a variety of benches, stump seating, and of course wood chips. To date, they have milled lumber from red oak, ginkgo, bald cypress, tulip poplar, elm, maple, and ash trees.

Delivering Urban Wood Reuse products for their new life at a D.C. school! Photo Courtesy of DDOT.

It is no surprise that from the very start, UFD wanted to bring the urban lumber back for use in the District. Thankfully, another community partner, the OSSE School Garden Program, was eager to develop a pilot program to connect urban lumber with schools in need of seating for outdoor classrooms and gardens. A win-win-win! Urban lumber is given a second life, community partnerships between nonprofits like yours truly and city agencies are strengthened, and schools receive resources to provide beneficial learning tools!

These benches, stump seating, and wood chips are available for request by public schools in the District! There is no cost associated with receiving any of these products

– teachers and school administrators can request items through UFD’s Urban Wood Reuse Products Request Form.

Top photo is of an Outdoor classroom at Langley Elementary School in Ward 5. Benches made from recycled wood. Photo Courtesy of DDOT.