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Portland first city ever to chronicle personal 'tree stories'

Portland State Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Vivek Shandas wants the memories written down for posterity.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Wedding proposals, wind storms, epic climbs, rope swings and cooling shade. Trees can remind us of lots of things, and we love them here in the Northwest. So much so, Portland is the first city in the world to create an interactive map to tell their stories.

"This tree is an amazing tree, it really is. It's called Monkey Puzzle tree," said homeowner Walter Poz outside his Laurelhurst neighborhood home. At over five stories tall, and native to Chile, the tree was planted around 1905. "They supposedly grow to be a thousand years old," Poz said. The tree holds many memories in the 25 years he's lived here.

"We set the teepee up in the yard right under it for a couple of years. And when my son was seven or eight, we put out this water slide and for some reason my son decided he wanted to launch off the slide and grab this tree, you know how boys are. He ended up flying off the top and crashing on the ground," Poz recalled.

It's those kinds of memories Portland State Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Vivek Shandas wants written down for posterity.

"How do we tell stories, what's the human side of cities, how do we think about community through the perspective of trees?" Shandas said.

In the past year, he and a colleague have received about 300 stories on the website CanopyStory.org. They're hoping for 1,000. The website shows a wide map of the Portland-metro area. You can zoom into neighborhoods, and further down into the green dots marking trees 50 feet or higher. The dots were able to be mapped thanks to a 2014 radar flight above the city that created a high-definition, 3D map that is able to discern living things like trees and grass, with buildings and map their heights.

Click on green dot of a tree you know, and up pops a box that you can type in your story. Love, death, children, heartbreak, Shandas says an old tree can witness it all.

"This is a short story from Ivan, age 6, who lives in the Linwood neighborhood. Ivan says, 'My grandma has a cedar tree that is great for climbing! The end.' I love that. We've heard things about how trees provide so much shade and cooling. Or people who sought shelter under trees, as someone who doesn't have a home."

One story Shandas shared with us came from the Mt. Scott neighborhood about a tree in the writer's neighbor's yard. She talks about an Asian woman who lived through the internment camps, coming down with the Ricketts disease and living on a farm in Gresham. The woman planted the tree and it grew above all the homes and she recently passed away, but the author writes how the tree still stands "strong and tall".

Now the submission period for Canopy Story is coming to an end. And Portland's first-of-its-kind history experiment might just get copied in other cities. Chicago is very interested in it.

Shandas says these stories could also help ease tensions and sway home builders who might want to cut down trees for new construction.

No taxpayer or city budget money is being used in the project. The two PSU professors did this on their own time, using data the city already had. Visit CanopyStory.org to tell your story.