Jim Gregory proudly holds a tree planted on Shelby Avenue by the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps. | Photo: Chad Crawford

Throwing Shade & Growing Roots

Jim Gregory makes trees count

Jim Gregory is a man with a shady plan for East Nashville. “In a few years, we want to create a walkable arboretum that runs from Shelby Park to Downtown,” Gregory says. As the Chair of the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps, Gregory hopes to soon see folks strolling along Shelby Avenue under a spreading canopy of Red Maple, Tupelo, Yoshino Cherry, Red Bud, Burr Oak, Dogwood, and other trees, along with having the thoroughfare officially designated as an arboretum by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council.

“With that great view of downtown in the background, it’s the kind of spot that could be just as popular for taking photographs as the angel wings [Kelsey Montague’s famous Gulch mural, What Lifts You] because it will be so beautiful, a living landmark,” Gregory says.

For Gregory and the all-volunteer non-profit organization he leads, creating that arboretum will mean planting more trees through a donations-driven project, which began with getting 46 trees in the ground along the avenue in January of 2019. “It was a very good start,” he says. “We have a few more years of planting ahead of us before we get there.” The NTCC is now raising funds for the 2020 Shelby Avenue planting, set for mid-March. Donations will be used to purchase trees, with volunteers supplying the labor for planting.

In addition to organizing community tree plantings, the NTCC sponsors a tree farm-to-yard program that helps Nashvillians buy and plant trees for their own property more affordably. It works as a kind of community buyers’ club. The NTCC doesn’t take any revenue from the tree sales. “We do it because it’s in keeping with our mission,” Gregory explains. “Our only revenue comes through donations, not sales.”

Gregory’s interest in Nashville’s tree canopy began when he and his husband Will Worrall moved into their Shelby Hills home in 2015. “One of the great things about our neighborhood is that we were surrounded by amazing tree canopy,” Gregory says. “It was wonderful.” There were some folks, though, who didn’t appreciate those trees. “Within six months of us moving in on our street, they began tearing down one older house after another and taking with them all the trees.”

It was devastating to see the trees going down, but Gregory and Worrall weren’t sure what they could do about it. “Trees are private property, but they are part of a neighborhood as well,” Gregory says. That paradox poses some difficulty when it comes to preserving trees. The couple began to wonder if there might be any city regulations protecting them. “We’re a regulations-driven household,” Gregory says, laughing. Worrall works as a civil engineer in regulatory compliance for the Army Corps of Engineers and helps to implement the Clean Water Act; Gregory works in compliance and risk management for Humana. Turns out you can’t find two better data-loving people to watchdog Nashville’s tree policy.

They learned the city did have a “tree replacement” code which required a certain number of trees to exist on a plot of land, a number calculated based on lot frontage. “It’s a bit of a misnomer,” Gregory says. “It has nothing to do with tree replacement really; it has everything to do with tree density, but not replacement specifically.” He and Worrall suspected the tree density regulations were not being followed or enforced. So the two compliance experts spent the next six months counting trees around newly built houses to see which properties met tree density requirements and which didn’t. “You’d see these million dollar homes and no trees,” Gregory says. They tracked their findings in a spreadsheet, and the data they collected confirmed the hypothesis.

“In the course of six months we found there were within East Nashville over 300 missing trees at about a hundred new houses that were built in 2015 and 2016,” Gregory says. Counts in The Nations and 12 South found similar tree sparsity. The tree counters brought their data to city officials to ask that builders be required to heed existing density requirements. “We just wanted them to follow the law,” Gregory says.

The NTCC was instrumental in getting Metro Council to pass Bill 1416 in July of 2019, which raises tree density by 60 percent for commercial and multifamily properties, implements street tree planting requirements for commercial and multifamily developers, and introduces incentives to preserve heritage trees.

“Healthy tree canopy is the sign of a healthy city,” Gregory observes, “and a community that plants together grows together.”

For more information about the NTCC and the Tree Farm-to-Yard program or to donate, check them out at nashvilletreeconservationcorps.org