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Tree Canopy Goals

Because of the many benefits trees provide, communities often seek to expand their tree canopy. But planting more trees is not the only means to expand your community’s canopy. Even more important is preservation of existing trees. Together, proper tree care and a planting program emphasizing diversity will allow your forest to better reach its potential. For example, selecting a diverse assortment of species for your regular planting program will mitigate damage of future pests or pathogens, while active tree maintenance will ensure proper tree structure and long-term health.

Knowing your community’s canopy cover establishes a baseline of knowledge that you can use to promote your forest and from which you can set canopy goals. See the steps below on how to set canopy goals or to use canopy data to prioritize planting areas or calculate the ecosystem benefits of your tree canopy.

Step 1: Determining boundaries

Despite the importance of canopy cover, there is unfortunately no one-size-fits-all canopy goal to which all communities should aspire. Every place is its own unique mix of population density, historic development, industry, climate, potential growing space and dreams.

Decide area of interest

First thing’s first: What is your area of interest? There may be an obvious answer (e.g., your village boundaries), but there may be a narrower focus, such as a neighborhood, park, rights-of-way, riparian zone, within a mile of a school or any geographic area one can think of within the bounds of Wisconsin’s municipalities* or urban areas**.

If you need help identifying your area of interest or establishing boundaries, contact the DNR.

Determine current canopy cover

Know your area of interest? Good!

The baseline canopy is already assessed for municipal* and urban areas**. However, other geographic areas like a neighborhood or school district might require you to do a bit of legwork to establish that baseline canopy cover. In those cases, assess the percent canopy cover using GIS data, i-Tree Canopy [exit DNR] or contact the DNR to help you find your unique values.

Take a little bit of time exploring where canopy is located in your area of interest (you can zoom into your community on this map). Canopy cover is not distributed evenly and knowing how trees are dispersed enables identification of underserved areas and areas of potential growth. It helps prioritize where communities should plant or better maintain current trees in the future.

Once you know your tree canopy, move on to...

Step 2: Setting canopy goals

It is important to set ambitious but realistic canopy goals. Is there public land over which to expand the canopy? Is most of the potential plantable space limited to private land? Does your anticipated budget permit an expansion of planting? Answers to these questions hopefully inform your goals.

When you deliberate your tree canopy goals, consider the following criteria to help guide your decision. As you think about the goal-setting criteria below, recognize that though the goal is arbitrary, it could create its own momentum and benefits. However, an unrealistic goal could also lead to staff, volunteer and public disappointment and disinterest. Tree canopy goals are products of dreams confronting reality.


  1. Compare your community with those:
    1. nearby;
    2. you admire;
    3. you rival;
    4. with similar population size [exit DNR];
    5. with similar population density [PDF exit DNR]; and
    6. with similar industry.
  2. See what canopy goals other communities have set
  3. Identify where canopy can be expanded
    1. What is physically possible?
    2. What is preferable?
    3. What is the potential plantable space?
    4. Is there public land where you can plant, or mostly private land where you can encourage planting?
  4. Consider budgets. Do you anticipate any funds for:
    1. Maintaining your urban forest as-is?
    2. Expanding a planting program (while maintaining current canopy)?
    3. A marketing campaign?
    4. Wishful thinking?
  5. What is your time frame?
    1. 10 years?
    2. 20 years?
    3. 30 years?

Do you have a tree canopy goal? Now it’s time to plan for and implement your goal!

For more detailed information on setting canopy goals, see pages 12-18 in "The Sustainable Urban Forest" [PDF exit DNR].

Step 3: Planning and implementation

There are innumerable variables to successful planning and implementation to reach your tree canopy goals. Of course, it takes resources to maintain and increase your canopy cover. You may need to find new investment, cultivate public support and engage public officials. There may also be structural changes to your forestry program necessary to achieve your canopy goals, such as finding new funding sources or establishing new ordinances in your community. Or you might need to build partnerships with public and private organizations. For advice on these structural changes, please consult the DNR's urban forest improvement page or contact your regional DNR urban forestry coordinator.

Canopy cover does not need to be uniform across the community, though its distribution can tell you important things about underserved areas and areas of potential growth. If trees are to be planted in your community, it is extremely important to plant a diverse mix of species.

It might also be in your interest to set benchmarks to gauge your progress. For example, if you set a goal to expand canopy 10% over 30 years, you might have interim goals of expanding canopy 0.3% each year***.

Tree canopy calculator

Use this tree canopy calculator [XLSX] to obtain a very rough**** estimate of how many trees you would need to plant to achieve your canopy goal.

This calculator takes for granted that your current canopy level (pre-planting) would stay the same. This is an enormous assumption due to fluctuating canopy cover over time from natural mortality and regeneration, development and many other factors. But assuming consistent canopy, you can use the calculator to anticipate how much additional canopy would be produced by new trees.

Though this calculator makes generalized estimates using a single generic tree and size, it is incredibly important to plant a diverse assortment of species. Municipalities and residents can improve the resiliency of their urban forest by opting to plant less common, site-appropriate trees.

Other communities' goals

To help frame your own community’s tree canopy goals, below is a table showing goals established by other communities across the country.

Community Year Assessed Current Canopy Goal Target Date City size (ac.) Population (2010)
Asbury Park, NJ 2013 22.7 35 none 976 16,116
Easton, MD 2014 27 35-40 2054 7,287 15,945
Leesburg, VA 2007 27 40 2031 7,980 42,616
Hartford, CT 2013 25 35 2033 11,584 124,775
New Haven, CT 2009 38 Add 10k trees 2014 12,864 129,779
Pittsburgh, PA 2011 40 60 2031 37,344 305,704
Las Vegas, NV 2012 8.6 20 2035 86,912 583,756
Portland, OR 2014 30 33 Ongoing 92,800 583,776
San Francisco, CA 2012 13.7 20 2034 148,410 805,235

*Municipal boundaries are the borders of cities or villages. Townships are not included unless they fall within an urban** boundary. For example, some of the Town of Grand Chute falls within the Green Bay urban area. Additionally, municipalities which incorporated since after 2014 are not included.

**Urban areas are those lands classified by the U.S. Census Bureau [exit DNR] as densely developed territories, based on population densities. Urban areas are not limited to southeast Wisconsin, Madison and Green Bay, but are present throughout the state. Per the Census Bureau: "Urban areas represent densely developed territory, and encompass residential, commercial and other nonresidential urban land uses. To qualify as an urban area, the territory identified according to criteria must encompass at least 2,500 people."

***However, the DNR will not be able to provide annual canopy assessments. It is the Urban Forestry program’s intention to produce new assessments every three to seven years.

****There are a huge number of variables impacting the survival, growth rate and size of your trees. This calculator provides a very coarse estimate of the number of trees you would have to plant in your area of interest to reach your canopy goal. For a finer estimate, use i-Tree Eco’s forecasting tool [exit DNR] (though this requires having a sample or complete tree inventory of your area of interest).