Trees may not be the first thing noticed when people visit Largo, one of the many cities in Pinellas County with a bad case of urban sprawl. However, spend some time with Greg Brown, and you begin to notice the tops of the Indian date palms swaying along East Bay Drive. The cool breeze under the oak trees in Largo Central Park. The nut shells that have fallen from pecan trees behind the Largo Community Center. As parks superintendent, Brown is responsible for everything green Largo owns.
His job includes managing 350 acres of parkland, divided up into 18 city parks, and Largo's urban forestry program, which maintains trees already in existence (about 25,000 on city property) as well as "bringing back the canopy that was lost so many years ago,'' Brown said.
"It is true that Pinellas County did seem to go crazy with the asphalt at one time,'' said Brown, 44, whose first lessons in horticulture and forestry were learned through his father's Clearwater horticulture business. "But our urban forestry program is seeing success.''
Part of that success was documented in 2008, when Largo won best urban forestry program from the Florida Tree Conference. And more recently, in 2010, the Arbor Day Foundation named Largo a Sterling Tree City USA. Largo was the first city in the Tampa Bay area to receive the designation, which was a result of three projects coordinated by the parks department, including the Mayor's Street Tree Beautification Program, the CommuniTrees project (giving away free trees to Largo residents) and an online inventory of city-owned trees.
However, Brown says he's most encouraged with programs like the one held March 10, during the kickoff event for the city's initiative, Play Unplugged.
The purpose was to remind the community of the benefits of simple, old-fashioned play. Hundreds of children thronged Largo Central Park to participate in outdoor activities. Brown, a certified climbing and rappelling instructor, asked the Boy Scouts to lead a tree-climbing program in the center of the park.
"Usually, we can't allow people to get in our trees,'' he said. "But getting people to have a chance to climb the trees at special events promotes what we are trying to do.''
Max Viera, climbing director for the High Adventure area at Sandhill Scout Reservation in Brooksville, oversaw both the tree climbing and a zipline set up between the oaks.
"Whenever I come to Largo, I'm impressed with the trees,'' said Viera, who has known Brown for eight years. "For example, I just got back from a climbing trip in Georgia and the Carolinas, and some of the trees in Largo are on par with big trees found up there. Greg goes out of his way to encourage growing and maintaining trees instead of cutting trees down.''
Henry Schubert, the assistant city manager for Largo, agrees.
"Greg has heightened our awareness of the value of planting trees. They add to our quality of life,'' said Schubert.
About eight years ago, Schubert served as the city project manager for the design and construction of Largo's new library. The property east of the building was designated the stormwater retention area — typically a low area with simple groundcover plants to soak up rain runoff.
But instead of grass, Brown, who holds a degree in interdisciplinary natural sciences from the University of South Florida, asked Schubert to consider planting dozens of trees like cypress and pines.
"He felt it would add to the natural setting while helping with maintenance,'' Schubert recalled. "And he ended up selling us on the idea. That was years ago . . . I encourage you to drive over to look."
Ask Brown if he has a favorite tree, and he admits he's sentimental.
"My wife (Theresa), son (Gabe) and I live on the property I grew up on, so my favorite tree of all time will still be the one at my house where I had a swing when I was a kid,'' he said.
But he also has favorites in Largo, including the Elf Tree, a southern live oak in Central Park between the Circle of Peace and the Largo Railroad Train Depot. About 300 years old, the tree's branches are so heavy they swirl close to the ground, giving it an otherworldly quality, "like the tree in the commercial with the Keebler elves,'' he said.
On his list is another live oak that has battled the elements for hundreds of years. It's in the center of tiny Datsko Park off Whitney Road and is called the Frankenstein Tree because it is supported with giant bolts.
This year, Brown hopes to see several hundred more trees planted on public land, but he wants residents and businesses to plant trees too.
"There's a saying about trees: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.''