It's official: Lexington is a shady town.
But not as shady as it could be.
A report released last week shows that trees cover roughly 25 percent of the city's core — just shy of the national average.
But if Lexington wants cleaner air and water, higher property values and a more livable city, it needs more trees over the next 20 years, according to a recent report from Davey Resource Group.
Lexington's tree canopy provides $30.7 million in benefits annually — from carbon capture to improving stormwater runoff to generating savings on homeowners' air-conditioning bills.
"They provide all of these benefits all the time," said Jenny Gulick, an urban forestry consultant for Davey. "A stop sign gives you a public service benefit, but that's all it gives you. The urban forest will give you this benefit, every year, over and over, and more as it grows."
Gulick presented the Davey Resource Group report last Tuesday to the Urban County Council's Environmental Quality Committee. Lexington is the first city in Kentucky to conduct an urban tree canopy survey, Gulick said. It cost roughly $42,000.
Arborists have wanted the survey for years, saying previous attempts to measure tree canopy were estimates at best and unreliable.
Using satellite images and geographic information systems data, or GIS, Davey found that Lexington's tree canopy was 24.5 percent. The national average is 27 percent. American Forests, a national conservation group, has recommended a tree canopy of 40 percent for cities.
The Davey group also looked at areas that needed more trees and ranked them from high to low priority based on a series of factors. The city now has data showing where trees are needed most.
For example, Tates Creek Road at Kenesaw is a high-priority tree-planting area because of its population density, few trees, the slope of the area and proximity to a flood plain.
Davey also ranked tree canopies in the 12 council districts. Older, more established neighborhoods, including Ashland Park and Chevy Chase, had the best tree cover. Council District 4, which includes The Arboretum on Alumni Drive and neighborhoods such as Lansdowne, had the most shade, with 31.9 percent of the total land area covered by tree canopy.
Arborists cautioned that the urban tree canopy survey was only the beginning.
"We can now set targets on where we want to go," said Tom Kimmerer, chief scientist for Venerable Trees, a Lexington nonprofit.
Those growth targets are important because Lexington's tree canopy probably will decrease in coming years.
John Saylor, arborist senior for the city, and Kimmerer said pin oaks and white and green ash trees in Lexington are dying out and need to be replaced. The loss of those old trees will create a sizable dent in the tree canopy.
Both said the Davey report could be a catalyst for more public awareness about trees — what to plant and how to care for them.
"Big trees are more important than little trees," Kimmerer said. "Planting a large number of little trees that grow quickly but don't last a long time is not a good investment."
"A lot of people plant a tree, and they think that's all they need to do," Saylor said. "I am hoping that this survey will generate awareness and support at the community level and so people will plant more trees. Trees aren't a bother. They are an asset to the community."
Public education will be key to whatever Lexington does next.
Only 16 percent of the land where more shade is needed is publicly owned, Davey found. The remaining 84 percent is on private land.
To get started, Lexington must develop a comprehensive urban forestry management plan. There are many city departments that deal with trees besides the city's two arborists, including parks and recreation, streets and paving, and zoning and planning.
Urban County Councilman Harry Clarke, who serves on the city's tree board, said a coordinated urban forestry plan was a must.
"Our urban forestry program is considerably fractured because it's in several different departments," he said. "We don't have centralized control. That's something that we need to look at if we want to maximize what we want to do with our trees."
After an urban forestry plan is implemented, the city could set specific targets to increase its canopy by a certain date, Saylor said.
But that will take money. Davey estimated it would cost $1.2 million to increase the tree canopy by 1 percent each year.
Other council members said they were supportive of increasing the tree canopy but that the costs would have to be weighed carefully against all the city's needs. Right now, there is no proposal before the council.
But Gulick warned the council not to get sticker shock. Much of that $1.2 million — more than 84 percent — will be for trees on private property.
"It's a private-public partnership," Gulick said. "It's not the role of the government to fund every single tree being planted. But it could be the leader and plant the trees on public property."
The city now spends about $20,000 a year for tree programs, and much of that money is to help poor home owners remove diseased trees. Reforest the Bluegrass, the largest tree-planting event in the state, which is coordinated by Saylor, is funded mostly through corporate and other sponsors.
Other cities have found ways to increase tree counts, Gulick said.
For example, Cincinnati has a tree canopy of 39 percent, just shy of the 40 percent goal.
But it took more than 30 years of concentrated, publicly funded efforts to get there, Gulick said.
The city first employed an arborist in 1980; Lexington didn't have an arborist until 1999.
Gulick, one of Cincinnati's first urban foresters, said the city had a formalized urban forestry program.
"They funded it and they empowered it," he recalled. "It took us 20 years, but we planted on every single open street."
Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: HLCityhall.com.