Why Don’t All City Residents Immediately Welcome Trees?

Over the last day or so, the team at American Forests has been discussing the New York Times article “Free Trees? Many Detroit Residents Say No Thanks,” and it reminds us of our own journey to achieve “Tree Equity”. This situation in Detroit, where we have been working side-by-side with city officials and residents since 2014, tracks a pattern American Forests has seen across the country where disinvestment can breed mistrust and negative sentiment amongst those most directly affected by the lack of quality canopy near them. Bearing witness to low canopy cover is one thing, but seeing the promise young trees bring, only to have these trees die not long after, can be a traumatic experience. Just like the surrounding canopy, citizens in underserved areas witness new investment come and go, with investors excited to make deals and plans only to up and leave not long after; likewise, government agencies and nonprofit organizations make promises that they may not have the capacity to fulfill once grant money runs out.

We as a staff have been reflecting on this inherent inequity, especially in the face of threats from climate change. We are shifting our science-based strategies not only as they pertain to how we and other local institutions manage tree canopy, but how we equip those working and living in low-canopy areas with tools and resources to improve social cohesion. How do we restore healthy, diverse canopy cover and at the same time empower people to create their own vibrant and resilient communities? We are beginning to address these questions, keeping in mind that American Forests is just one stakeholder among many, and none of us will solve these challenges alone.

Data and recommendations from scientific studies like the one cited in the NYT article are where we begin. Weighing metrics against the historical context of eroded trust in our institutions — in our case, as a result of declining municipal funding for urban forestry maintenance — enables us to paint a more accurate picture of what resources and investments it will take for a community’s canopy to truly recover. Without the vital input and empowerment of community members, planting and maintenance campaigns cannot be successful, and Tree Equity cannot be achieved. With access to these datasets from marginalized communities (that have traditionally been left out of decision making), city and county forestry agencies, local tree nonprofits, state urban forestry councils, academia and private industry will be assured that they can manage community trees in an inclusive, sustainable way.

American Forests is committed to supporting our fellow institutions in the field as they grow their capacity to engage and serve those who have traditionally been left out of community forestry decision making. We have provided capacity-building support to local nonprofits across the country that are planting trees in communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In Detroit, we have partnered with The Greening of Detroit in developing a tree nursery as an engine for economic development and ecological sustainability. In 2015, American Forests worked to create the Osborn Outdoor Education Center of Detroit, which is now being led by the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance (ONA). This is an innovative tree maintenance program that couples cost-savings incentives for residents caring for the nearby trees.

A great deal of progress has occurred in Detroit, and in blighted neighborhoods in cities across the country since research began in 2014 for this study. American Forests is proud to have followed through on many of Dr. Christine Carmichael’s thoughtful recommendations from her study through our place-based partnerships work and through Vibrant Cities Lab, our online tool for planning resilient urban forests. This tool speaks directly to Dr. Carmichael’s recommendations on how to be inclusive and share decision-making power in tree species selection with residents in order to gain greater support for proposed plantings; and how to apply broad metrics for what makes a successful urban forestry program.

As we work to progress our Tree Equity principles, we are excited to continue learning from and promoting leading scientific research and tree practitioners in the field. American Forests is committed to ensuring access to quality canopy for everyone, and that means everyone must be heard, respected and valued as we work together with our peers and partners. We look forward to continuing to meet tomorrow’s challenges with innovative, science-based solutions that develop resilient and sustainable communities.

Sarah Lillie Anderson
Senior Manager, Tree Equity Programs for American Forests

Sarah’s work focuses on equipping urban forestry stakeholders to build and retain a diverse, qualified and representative workforce. Previously, she ran Lillie Leaf Solutions, LLC, a consulting firm that helped urban greening stakeholders address equity, access, inclusion and justice in their work. Sarah’s experience includes developing and administering national urban forestry programs, managing constituent engagement for urban tree and city park associations, and facilitating local and national conferences.

American Forests inspires and advances the restoration of forests, which are essential to life.