Why am I doing research about trees and environmental justice?

The One About Trees

I always assumed that everyone else felt the same way I did about trees.  I figured labeling myself a ‘tree lover’ would be obvious, like saying I’m an oxygen lover, or a pizza lover.  Anyone with a pulse and the use of at least one of their five senses appreciates trees, right?  Wrong.

People sometimes ask me why I think urban trees are so important, when there are so many other things that people in cities need.  And I usually rattle off a laundry list of the more technical benefits of trees: shade, stormwater mitigation, cleaner air, it being low-key step toward climate resilience, etc.  But at the end of the day the truth is that trees in the city just make me happy. Some of my fondest early memories are of urban trees– the giant sycamores in my kindergarten playground, the grove of eucalyptus that I played in near our house (before they were cut down).  I was raised in the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles, and like many kids, the trees on the street where I lived were my first taste of nature.

The street where I lived from 2-8 years old. My old house is the one on the left with the white van in front. Very 1980’s subdivision suburbs.

Before I ever thought about the value of trees as “natural resources” or “ecosystem services”, I innately got that they were important.  They gave shade, and a place to climb and play.  I knew that some of them got really big and lived the length of many human lifetimes.  Trees made me aware of the passage of time on a larger-than-human scale.  I think they gave me hope that there was more to the world than strip malls and parking lots.  

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest as a teenager, I brought this connection with me, and for a budding (haha) tree lover, Portland, Oregon was the place to be.  

American elms (ulmus americana) changing color in the fall– along Portland’s Park Blocks.
Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) in Mt Tabor park, Portland.

Of course I always assumed that everyone else felt the same way I did about trees.  I figured labeling myself a ‘tree lover’ would be obvious, like saying I’m an oxygen lover, or a pizza lover.  Anyone with a pulse and the use of at least one of their five senses appreciates trees, right?  Wrong.

After working for the City of Portland’s Tree Inventory Project for a summer, I realized that not everyone has the same feelings about trees that I do.  While working for the TIP I spent a lot of time in the field counting, measuring, and assessing street trees.  While I was out pounding the pavement, I’d get approached or just yelled at by people who thought that inventorying trees was a waste of taxpayer money or felt like trees in general were a burden, and not a benefit.  I was pretty surprised– there are so many people out there who hate trees?!  What’s the deal?  The benefits of trees have been pretty extensively studied, and its been shown that they have both environmental and psychological benefits.  So why do so many people want trees off their streets?  Oh, I was so naive!

People actually have a lot of well justified reasons to hate trees– the cost of maintenance, the mess of fruits and leaves, the blocked views.  Sometimes the city plants trees without consulting people, and they are bitter about that.  Sadly, trees in neighborhoods have also been seen as signs of gentrification– if new trees are getting planted, that often means that property values are going up and low-income residents are going to be displaced.  This phenomenon has been referred to as environmental gentrification, or eco-gentrification.  

But what do people really think about trees?  Why do some city dwellers like me love trees and feel like they are a super valuable investment, while others think that trees are a nuisance or a waste of money/space.  Is the connection to nature that trees give to me not universal?  If so, I wonder why not?  And if we can’t all agree that trees are a benefit to communities, then how do we decide how to manage them?  What are other barriers (socio-economic, cultural) that might be influencing people’s feelings about trees?

Obviously, I had a lot of questions.  Rather than speculate, I wanted to go out and ask people these questions.  And that is how the germ of my cross country research trip was conceived.

Dean Hay, The Greening of Detroit

The Greening of Detroit, and Rebuilding the One-time “City of Trees”

Though Detroit was once known as the “City of Trees” for the large and distinguished elms that lined its boulevards at the turn of the century, the city’s canopy has suffered from sustained tree loss and damage for over 50 years, thanks to pests, lack of funding, and neglect.  The Greening of Detroit started 28 years ago as a reaction to canopy loss from Dutch elm disease because the city of Detroit had invested in a monoculture of American elm, and when Dutch elm disease entered the city, hundreds of thousands of large stately elm trees were lost.  Dutch elm disease was Detroit’s first devastation from tree pest, but it would not be their last. To help combat the tree canopy loss that the city was experiencing, the non-profit Greening of Detroit began to do tree plantings, replacing dead or removed trees.  The organization slowly grew over time, and by the 1980’s, due to the rapidly declining economic situation in Detroit, the city pretty much unable to adequately care for their public trees.  The forestry department dwindled significantly by the 1980’s, and the City began leasing their tree nursery to the Greening of Detroit in the 1990’s because they could not afford to maintain it.  The Greening still runs that tree nursery.  

After Dutch elm disease devastated the Detroit’s tree population in the mid-to-late 20th century, the three main trees that were replanted were silver maple, Norway maple, and ash.  It turns out that none of these three tree types are particularly good street tree– silver maple’s have weak wood and large roots that can tear up the sidewalk and Norway maple will tend to girdle itself with its own roots.  Of these three tree types, ash trees seemed the most well-suited to being a street tree– until the discovery of the pest emerald ash borer in Detroit in 2001.  Between 2001 and 2010 nearly the entire population of ash trees in Detroit was dead or dying, and it cost the City and homeowners millions of dollars to remove these trees.  As a result of the devastation from EAB, and the economic downturn after the recession starting in 2008, the city has basically no budget for maintenance.  The Greening of Detroit has done the bulk of the tree plantings and young tree maintenance in the city over the last ten years. 

Today I talked to Dean Hay from the Greening of Detroit.  Dean began volunteering for the Greening in 1996.  He is a certified arborist, and he now runs their Green Infrastructure program.  I was very interested in their workforce development program, as well as some other innovative pilot programs that the organization has run like their neighborhood tree nurseries.

I was also curious about something that I had been hearing about when I visited Detroit, which was that there was backlash in some communities where trees had been planted trees– including vandalism and illegal removal of trees.  I wanted to know what was causing these feelings in residents, and what Dean’s perspective on this issue is, as someone dedicated to planting trees.

Conservation Training Through Workforce Development and Youth Employment

Dean tells me that at the height of the recession, the unemployment rate was estimated to be 45%.  Currently, the unemployment rate in many Detroit neighborhoods is still well above the national average.  Detroiters are in desperate need of jobs, and not just in the same old industries that have been declining in the city for decades.  Training a workforce in green jobs like forestry, landscaping, and conservation is a one step towards a more sustainable economy.

According to The Greening’s website, more than 350 Detroiters graduated from their adult workforce training cohort since its inception five years ago.  In 2015, the program became certified as a federal apprenticeship program through the U.S. Department of Labor.  Dean tells me that this program is designed to train returning citizens (people who have been recently paroled) in landscape maintenance and arboriculture.  Participants attend an eight week training that happens both in the classroom and out in the field, they are paid a small stipend to help them make ends meet during training.  Training can happen in the nursery, city parks (especially in parks in underserved areas where parks have fallen into disrepair), tree plantings in public rights-of-way.  After they get their certificate, program participants are placed in a job, and Dean says they have a 100% placement rate.  Some are placed in the Greening as crew leaders, others land jobs in local landscaping, or construction and maintenance companies.  Most make $12-13$/hour to start, which is considered a living wage in Detroit.

Dean overseeing workforce development training.
Tree planting instruction during workforce development training with the Greening of Detroit.

The Greening also runs a program for high school students called the Green Corps program, where they hire young adults to water trees, grow food at Detroit Public Schools and urban farms, remove invasive species, and maintain city parks and greenways.  The program is a hybrid of work and environmental education, where the kids learn about plants, soils, and habitat alongside their on-the-job training.  The program employs about 80-200 youth each year, though they receive many thousands of applications.  Dean says that often, this is the only exposure a lot of these kids get to environmental education, and that the program “helps them in developing the skill set that they need to go off and get a job that pays well”.

Members of Greening of Detroit’s “Green Corps” in the field.

“No Tree” Requests, and Challenges to Public Perceptions of Trees

When The Greening of Detroit goes out to plant trees in neighborhoods, Dean tells me that they come across mixed reactions from residents.  The Greening has permits to plant in any rights-of-way from the City, and in return for this privilege, they prune and water the trees that they plant to ensure survival.  However, they are not always welcomed by people living in the neighborhoods where they plan tree plantings.  In some areas, people were vandalizing trees and  even ripping them out of the ground after they have been planted.   Some neighborhoods they were seeing almost 45% “no tree requests”, which is when a resident refuses a tree planting.  Dean says that when people did not want a tree, most often it was not issues of maintenance, etc; but rather the issue that people have is that that they were not consulted first.  No one approached them to ask them if it was okay to plant a tree.  He says, “residents may actually want the tree, but by force of habit they say no because they were not involved in the process”.

“I have been told that there are a lot of issues with trust with the city, but I also know that giving people a voice within a process– that is going to yield better results in the long run”.

Dean says he hears from a lot of people who say, ‘we love trees, we want to plant trees, but we just have other priorities right now’.  People are concerned because they have witnessed the City unable to care for trees, and many have suffered financial burdens from having to remove dead or diseased trees from their property.  Dean says many people are asking ‘why would we let you plant trees if we don’t know if those trees will be taken care of?’ “People are surprised that we want to listen to them and that we are going to take care of the trees”, he tells me.  

Winning Community Buy-In for Green Infrastructure

The Greening is developing new green infrastructure project with neighborhood leaders that focus on the establishment of natural ecosystems on vacant land. These include projects focusing on stormwater infiltration, dendroremediation (using trees to clean polluted soil) in brownfields, and “place-making experiences”.  In order for these ambitious projects to succeed, The Greening will need the support of the community.  Getting people on board with tree plantings and green infrastructure improvements has proven very challenging in some neighborhoods, especially those that may have experienced neglect from the City in the past.

One interesting project that Dean told me about was the Neighborhood Nurseries program.  This was a project that was started around 2008 when the recession hit, and because the resulting economic devastation and property abandonment in Detroit, it had mixed results.  The idea behind Neighborhood Nurseries was for The Greening of Detroit to plant saplings in empty lots in several neighborhoods around Detroit, and then train neighborhood residents to care for trees as they grow, and finally help people to plant trees in the neighborhood once they are mature.  On paper, this sounds like an amazing program, and it may have had much more success in another time or place, but because of Detroit’s unique challenges during this time, many of the nurseries were abandoned or even vandalized.  There were three different scenarios that happened with the Neighborhood Nurseries that The Greening put in:

1) One of the nurseries was a great success story– in the neighborhood of  Grandmont-Rosedale in the NW side of Detroit. This a community that has experienced investment by the City, and it’s residents generally make a higher income than citywide average.  In this neighborhood, all of the trees in the nursery were cared for and eventually planted.  

2) The “Pine Street Nursery” in Corktown may have been on a trajectory for success in this working-class but engaged neighborhood, but during the recession, there was almost 100% property abandonment in the neighborhood, so the trees were basically left uncared for.  A former city forester who lived in the neighborhood actually took care of the trees himself for a while, however ultimately the project was abandoned.  As of today, none of the trees in the nursery have been planted, as the neighborhood is still recovering from massive foreclosures.

3) Two neighborhoods that received tree nurseries actually experienced vandalizing of the trees that were planted.  Dean says he thinks that most people didn’t understand that the trees were meant for the neighborhood to take ownership of, they thought the city was just coming in and planting trees without asking.  Another issue was that people were using the lot where the nursery was placed for other things, like playing soccer or just hanging out, and people were angry that the lot was being taken over for tree planting.  The Greening did do community engagement before undertaking this project, but it may not have been robust enough, or with the right people.  This was a case where their message and mission did not get out to the community effectively, and so they got a lot of push back as a result.

The Pine Street Nursery still exists in Corktown, though it has not been maintained for several years. Photo my me.

This project provides some really useful lessons for those looking to start environmental conservation and sustainability efforts in struggling neighborhoods.  It underscores something I have heard from many of my interviewees, which is that this is an extremely sensitive issue within targeted or marginalized communities, because there is such a lack of trust and pent up frustration that people feel towards the government and other institutions that they feel have let them down.

According to Michigan-based community forestry scholar Christine Carmicheal, who has worked with the Greening of Detroit in the past researching the political dynamics of greening efforts, “decision-making power structures are a key contributor to environmental injustices according to urban political ecologists, and shared decision-making among diverse participants is a defining feature in models of urban and community forestry models in the U.S. It is currently poorly understood how perspectives on these factors differ among types of participants involved in urban greening, such as non-profit organizations and residents”.  The political ecology perspective is a valuable one for me here, as I am starting to examine the deeper causes for the distrust of institutional power-structures by targeted/marginalized communities.  Political ecology is the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues and changes.

As I talk to more people and visit more cities, I am starting to frame my thinking about environmental stewardship and community-based greening efforts through the lens of political ecology and environmental justice.  This is especially live in places like Chicago and Detroit, where communities of color have been systematically oppressed and their neighborhoods experiencing disinvestment.  When asking why people don’t want trees, I’m thinking about some of the bigger issues that have effected their lives and their perspective.   Knowing that things like the historical racism, the intergenerational transfer of wealth, notions of property and ownership, and sustained neoliberal policy have effected the working class and communities of color for decades, I wonder how are these things playing into people’s perceptions of environmentalism and city forestry?  What outside forces are at work that might be changing people’s minds about trees?

You know, asking all the fun questions! … ಠ_ಠ …  No easy solutions here.

Next week, I’m planning to get at some of these questions in my interview with Christine.  Stay tuned!!

Note: The views and opinions expressed by Dean Hay come from his own personal experiences and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Greening of Detroit.

Images courtesy of Greening of Detroit unless otherwise noted.

Jennifer Karps, Bureau of Environmental Services

I am back in Portland, and after my long sojourn east, I am finally ready to talk to some people in my hometown about the state of our own urban forest.  I’m wondering what are the biggest challenges we face to building diversity in our environmental stewardship programs?  What are the unique challenges in Portland, and what are some solutions that we are finding?  If not solutions, what lessons have we learned?

Jennifer Karps (right), planting trees in Portland’s Alameda neighborhood.

Today I spoke to Jennifer Karps, who has worked for the City of Portland at the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) for almost 10 years.  Jennifer’s program is called the Environmental Services Tree Program, and they facilitate several projects to increase tree canopy.  BES became interested in increasing canopy after the City began a large-scale, proactive investment in green infrastructure for stormwater management during their “Grey to Green Initiative” which launched back in the mid-2000’s under then-mayor Sam Adams. BES realized that if they installed green infrastructure like trees, ecoroofs and bioswales to mitigate stormwater runoff, they would be saving taxpayers a lot of money by not having to replace as many sewer pipes.  See more about Portland’s problems with our sewer pipes, stormwater, and combined sewage overflow here.

So Jennifer’s tree program was established to increase tree canopy in order to help with our stormwater runoff problems.  They have several initiatives to this end, including their “Treebate” program, and the new “Jade Greening” project.  I asked Jennifer about her experience running these programs, and what hurdles she has come across when trying to engage the public in environmental action.

“Trees are very emotional– love them or hate them, we feel strongly about our trees.”

She mentioned that with their Treebate program, there were far fewer participants in neighborhoods in Portland’s outer eastside, which is where many of our most diverse, working class neighborhoods are located. Jennifer says she is not sure why the Treebate program has not caught on in these neighborhoods, but she is interested in finding out why.

The “Jade Greening “ is somewhat a exploration of this question.  It is a coalition building exercise between multiple partners and stakeholders, spearheaded by the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon (APANO), and the environmental justice group OPAL in partnership with BES.  Jade Greening is a 5 year plan for investment in green infrastructure, transportation safety, and livability in the Jade District, an area surrounding 82nd and Division in SE Portland which is about 40% communities of color and is a landing zone for many new immigrants to Portland.  For their part, BES is committed to planting 100 new trees in the Jade District.  Now they are asking why the traditional techniques of getting people to plant trees are not working.  BES thinks that partnering with APANO, which has strong ties with the Asian community in east Portland, will help them reach people in the community better.  They hope that this new coallition will help them get information to people, so that residents understand who BES is, and why they are doing things like planting trees, and installing bioswales.

“We can help people to make the very best decisions that they can make by helping them to understand the complexity of these decisions”

One major issue Jennifer has seen in Portland is when the City manages trees as an “urban forest” rather than a collection of individual trees.  While this one-size-fits-all strategy does have its benefits, it does not allow for enough flexibility for the city to work with residents on a case-by-case basis, and that can lead to frustration and confusion on the part of residents about why the city regulates trees the way it does.  Part of the challenge is the way we manage our street trees.  In Portland, if a tree is in a public right-of-way like the planting strip adjacent to your house, it is technically owned and regulated by the city, but the property owner where the tree is located is responsible for maintaining the tree, and replacing it if it falls or is removed.

This is a screenshot from my neighborhood of some street trees in the public right-of-way. The trees are owned by the city, but the adjacent property owner is responsible for maintaining them.

 This means people may find themselves having to pay to prune or remove a tree from the planting strip in front of their house, even though it is in the right-of-way that is owned by the city.  It is easy to understand how this could be very annoying or even financially detrimental to a lower-income homeowner, who may not have the disposable income to take care of the tree in their right-of-way.   Jennifer says that because of these added challenges, city officials need to be able to have compassionate conversations with residents about trees.  She believes that we need a new model of engaged government, that collaborates with citizens and the community to increase people’s education and awareness about trees through outreach and in-person conversations.

“A big part of the work is to win hearts and minds”

I asked Jennifer what some of her smart practices are for getting people excited about trees and environmental stewardship.  She says that less jargon on the side of city officials can go a long way.  If public servants can learn to expand their vocabulary so they can communicate with a diversity of residents, to transfer information as clearly as possible, then that will establish trust and understanding between residents and the city.  There can be a lot of mistrust and frustration with the city from residents, and this is toxic to the success of city projects.  Always asking, “do you understand what I’m saying, do I understand what you’re saying”?  Ultimately effective communication is what matters.

“Being thoughtful and humble when communicating with the public is so important”

We also talked about the idea of “cultural competency”, which by my favorite definition is “awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of others, to understand the culture-specific concepts of perception, thinking, feeling, and acting”.  Jennifer stressed the importance of genuinely meet people where they are, and respecting their (potentially different) perspective, without being a “white knight of environmentalism” (those last ones are my words).  Jennifer says she has had the most success when working with trusted community leaders to reach residents in communities of color, especially as a city official who people may be wary of.  She says what she has learned is to listen to the needs of the community to see what they need and how trees might fit into those needs, rather than trying to force trees in where they may not be wanted, are not a good fit, or are seen as distracting from other priorities.

Jennifer says she is “an educator at heart”, and advocates for more public programs designed to increase people’s tree literacy.  She has supported programs in Portland such as the Neighborhood Tree Stewards, Learning Landscapes and People Places Things as a means to disseminate information about trees to the public, and engage a broader audience in environmental stewardship efforts.

Note: The views and opinions expressed by Jennifer Karps come from her own personal experiences and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the City of Portland.

Nate Faris, Keep Indiana Beautiful

Today I talked to Nate Faris of the Indiana-based non-profit organization Keep Indiana Beautiful.  KIB is an veritable institution in Indianapolis, doing work in the city for over 40 years with several well regarded programs, and a beautiful new Leed-certified headquarters located in the quaint Fountain Square neighborhood.  The organization started as a group of women who organized in the 1960’s and 70’s to clean up litter from streets and alleys and expanded in the 1980’s as an environmentally minded non-profit that did everything from recycling to education.  Like the City of Indianapolis itself, KIB has been the beneficiary of some generous philanthropists, as well as some successful public-private partnerships leveraged through 1990’s mayor Stephen Goldsmith.

Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. is headquartered in Indianapolis. I took this photo at their main campus, near downtown. They fund many philanthropic projects in the Indianapolis area, including many sustainability oriented efforts, like the garden pictured here.

Today the KIB still organizes city litter clean-ups like their founders, but they have expanded their efforts to include neighborhood greening and tree plantings.  New programs are focused on education and equity, with the goal of training a more diverse workforce in environmental conservation.

Harnessing Data to Build a Better Program for Trees

Nate is the Director of Community Forestry at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.  He started at KIB in 2005 when the tree program was still quite young.  Since then, he has been building their tree program into a robust city-wide planting strategy, as well a database of information about each tree and project that KIB plants, to help them better analyse their successes and failures, and understand how and where they can improve their program.  Nate also works on KIB’s Youth Tree Team project, a large youth summer employment program that trains high-school aged kids about ecology, and gives them hands on experience with tree-care.

Nate’s educational background is in GIS (Geographic Information Systems/Science).  When he started at KIB over ten years ago, he realized that they were not keeping track of their tree plantings and saw a missed opportunity.  He thought tracking this data could be useful to do things like survival studies, or compare the success of trees from different nurseries over time.  In 2006, Nate began building a GPS database of projects and trees using Microsoft Access.  Staff and volunteers update this database every time they complete a planting project, and it has tracked the successes and not-so-successes of KIB tree plantings ever since. 

The subsequent map that KIB has created displays data about different projects, the project manager, address, project name, date, etc. for the last 10 years.  You can zoom in to display all the trees planted in a project, and look at data about each tree.  KIB collects information about the species, planting location, nursery of origin, and root containment method.  Nate and other KIB employee’s can log in to see even more information about the project on the back end.  Each tree has a ‘work history’ where you can log each time a tree has a maintenance action done such as watering, mulching, pruning and staking.  It’s is a huge amount of data, that can be sliced a lot of different ways to study things like survival rates, comparison’s of root containment methods, and even equity.  This is really cool stuff that I haven’t seen being done at this scale with any other tree planting programs.

A few years ago, KIB began to partner with the Bloomington Urban Forestry Research Group at Indiana University. Researchers are using KIB’s data to generate published research articles in peer-reviewed journals, researching the factors that influence the success of young (recently planted) urban trees. You can check out some of their research here. Members of the KIB Youth Tree Team also benefited from this partnership– in 2012 and 2014 they were trained by BUFRG researchers to collect tree data as part of one of these studies.

Youth tree team inventory training.

Keep Indiana Beautiful’s Youth Tree Team program is actually the thing that brought me to Indiana, to talk to Nate and tree team member Mari about how the YTT has developed over the years, and how it might be used as a model for bringing more diversity into environmental stewardship and sustainability work.  To learn more about the YTT, check out my interview with Mari Aviles, who worked as a YTT member in 2014 and now is a full-time employee at KIB, in the role of community arborist.

The greenroof atop KIB HQ.  Here they measure the rainfall to gauge when they need to start watering their recently planted trees.  According to Nate it is one of two greenroofs in the entire city of Indianapolis. Also it is apparently a great place to take a selfie.

Lisa Perez, Detroit Urban Connections Coordinator

Challenges to Promoting Environmental Stewardship in a Struggling City

Detroit is in a particularly difficult place when it comes to trees.  Their canopy was decimated in the early 2000’s when emerald ash borer (EAB) pests swept through and killed what has been estimated at several million ash trees throughout the state of Michigan.  The City of Detroit was hit particularly hard by this pest, and this during a time when their economy was already suffering (the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013).  At its peak in 1950, Detroit had a population of almost 2 million people. Today, the population is fewer than 680,000.  The city is left with tens of thousands of vacant homes, crumbling public infrastructure like sewer pipes and sidewalks, and an inadequate public transit system.  They have little to no resources to help manage trees on public land, or to help people take care of diseased or dying trees on their properties.

The ‘General Services Division’ is where arborists in the city of  Detroit work.  A lot of their time is still spent cleaning up after EAB, and taking down trees that are dead, decaying, or dangerous.  The department hardly has the time or resources start replanting trees, let alone to conduct public outreach and education efforts to encourage residents to replant.  A local non-profit The Greening of Detroit is responsible for almost all of the tree plantings that happen in the city (stay tuned for my interview with The Greening’s community forestry director!).

The U.S. Forest Service, the State, and private forestry also work to provide some information, education, and technical resources to improve the urban forests in the SE Michigan region, and Detroit benefits from these services.  Without help from outside organizations the City of Detroit would have no programs dedicated to planting and maintaining trees.

Lisa Perez works for the U.S. Forest Service, and heads up one of their public outreach projects called Detroit Urban Connections.  The Urban Connections program aims “to bridge the gap between urban residents and the National Forests in their backyard” and by imparting an appreciation of nature and the outdoors, they get people involved in conservation activities in their own cities.  I sat down to talk to her by phone in July.

Building capacity through partnerships.

Lisa is based in the midwest, and she oversees the entire SE Michigan area.  In order to build capacity she works almost 100% through partnerships with local community groups and non-profits. 

Through networking and building relationships, Lisa has made several partnerships that she leverages to help get Urban Connection’s message out to people.  Some of her long-term partners include the Greening of Detroit, and the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation– where the Forest Service has ongoing programs in their outdoor venue.  

She has partners that do short-term projects as well.  One example she gave me was Ser Michigan, a Latino community organization, where she had run some youth programs to encourage kids to interact with nature.  She told me about a recent event in a neighborhood park: she set up a mini-campground with a tent and a mock-fire pit, to expose kids to outdoor recreation.  The event is run in Spanish, which is the first language of many of the children.  This is especially important in a city where many neighborhoods are not within walking distance of a park, and there are no national forests nearby.  This distance from nature is compounded by the fact that many working class people of color cannot afford to drive (in part due to exorbitantly high insurance rates that may disproportionately effect minorities in Michigan) to reach parks or forests, so they are left without any way to connect with nature. 

Challenges, and a path toward rebuilding.

I asked Lisa if she thought the urban forest in her region was equitable, and she said she doesn’t think so.  She says you can drive along Woodward Street, which is a main transect that runs through Detroit and several other neighboring cities, you can see the difference in tree canopy depending on the city you are passing through.   It’s clear that their are more and healthier trees in cities that have more affluent residents, for instance Grosse Point, and less trees in economically depressed places like Detroit.

A lot of the challenges to growing a more healthy urban forest in underserved areas are pretty purely economic.  Some of the barriers Lisa mentioned include lack of funding and a lack of strategic planning at the city level.  Even as the Detroit’s financial situation is improving (they are finally out of bankruptcy), there are many other things that money needs to be spent on to improve quality of life for residents.  Because the city cannot afford to properly maintain its trees, poorly maintained trees can lead to bad perceptions of trees by residents.  Lisa says that Detroiters have some post traumatic stress related to trees because so many people have had to bear the cost of taking a tree down because of Emerald Ash Borer.  A lot of people see trees as just another financial burden that they can’t afford.  

Trees infected with emerald ash borer, being removed. (Credit Image: © David Joles/Star Tribune/ZUMA Press)

Another barrier for trees in the urban area is the aging water and sewage system.  There are lots of old leaking pipes and trees’ roots look for water.  Often when a family has to suffer the expense of having a water or sewer line replaced, upon removal the old pipe is found to contain many tree roots, leading folks to believe that the trees broke the pipes, and giving trees a really negative image.  Sewer and water line replacement is another huge cost for an already struggling family.

I asked Lisa if she had any advice to share for helping to support and engage residents in underserved neighborhoods/communities.  She says that the primary thing that has worked for her is working to build relationships with organizations that are already serving underserved communities– not necessarily organizations that are involved in sustainability or environmental work.  She says rather than coming at it from the environmental conservation perspective, we can reach people by making the connection to community health and environmental improvements.

Lisa says that all of the groups she has worked with are very invested in improving their communities, they just have very few resources, many people have disabilities, families to care for, etc so they may not have the extra time to devote to volunteering to do something like planting trees. Its NOT that they don’t care.  The people she meets and works with are very invested in improving their neighborhoods and increasing the quality of life in their communities.

Note: The views and opinions expressed by Lisa Perez come from her own personal experiences and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Forest Service.

Kevin Sayers, Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources







Kevin Sayers is the Urban and Community Forestry Program (UCFP) Coordinator for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources.  His program provides financial, educational, and technical assistance for issues related to urban trees (generally in public spaces, including parks but not in forests or wooded areas).  UCFP typically works with cities, counties, and other municipal governments as well as with non-profits, churches, and tribal organizations.  They provide grants to allow communities to do tree plantings, for cities to conduct tree inventories or provide training opportunities for city staff (arborists) or volunteers, and to help to review community tree ordinances.  Some cities have almost no urban forestry program, and so they really rely on the UCFP for support with tree management and stewardship programs.  

To put this in perspective for my Portland readers: at the City of Portland’s Urban Forestry Department we have a dedicated City Forester and a staff of several full time arborists as well as an education and outreach program with several employees.  Many cities in Michigan, like Detroit, are lucky if they even have one dedicated city forester.  In these cities it is usually someone in the Public Works Department that will take care of trees, but they have to do this along with all their other maintenance work.  This is why program’s like UCFP are so important to leverage additional resources for tree management and environmental education.

Though Kevin’s work takes him all over the state of Michigan, when I interviewed him we spoke primarily about Detroit, which is where I was visiting.  First, I asked him about the barriers of planting trees in underserved areas.  He says that in the Detroit area, the biggest challenge is overcoming the perception about trees as a burden rather than an amenity.

“Many people have only ever known trees on streets to be a danger because they were not maintained properly.  It is a challenge overcoming the misperceptions and stereotypes that have happened because of years on neglect of trees.”

People are seeing trees being planted when there are so many other things in their neighborhood that need fixing, like streetlights and sidewalks.  They might be angry that trees are being put in when there are other more immediate needs to health and safety.  People also wonder why are new trees being planted when we have dead trees still sitting in the streets.  These are all super valid concerns, and they raise the question of who’s priorities are we serving here?  

Though people have had negative experiences with trees due to lack of maintenance by the city, Kevin thinks that the majority of people in Detroit still like trees and support having a healthy urban forest.  Their beef is not with the trees themselves, it’s just that they have other needs that aren’t being met that take priority over tree plantings.  

“Don’t just plant trees because you are the city and you can do it.”

Kevin says that when working in underserved neighborhoods it helps to approach the community without preconceived ideas or a set plan and listen to them and respect their values and needs.  Don’t just plant trees because you are the city and you can do it, understand the residents’ perspectives and needs, this will make the project much more successful in the long run.  Also, he says, whatever you are doing– make it fun!  Give the people you are working with a good memory to hold on to so they will want to come back.  

“People like to get their hands dirty and be outside and engaged with something they don’t always do.  They are more likely to take care of their trees if they had input in the process or a hand in planting the tree.”


Note: The views and opinions expressed by Kevin Sayers come from his own personal experiences and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Natural Resources.



Photo Diary: Detroit

So I started my trip from Chicago to Detroit very excited, with a ton of energy.  Then about halfway through my train ride… I started to notice a scratchy, sore feeling in the back of my throat.  I was annoyed, but I was like– fuck no I am NOT getting sick.  You know, because that trick always works so well.  By the time I got off the train, my head was pounding and I had a fever.  Still, I was excited to be in a new place and looking forward to exploring, so I powered through the first day, and the evening even managed to enjoy some drinks and food at the nearby dive Nancy Whiskey.  Whoops.  I probably should have stayed in bed.  When I woke up the next day I was full-blown ILL and I was pretty much bed-ridden for the next two days.

Despite all that, still I got to see a surprising amount of things before and after my convalescence.  I had a good time, met some really lovely people, and experienced the magic of fireflies. Now that I have seen a little of Detroit, I’d like to go back when I’m actually healthy and do some more exploring.  Enjoy the photos!

Art along the Dequindre Cut.
Public art, downtown Detroit. Celebrating pigeons for some reason…? I guess you just work with what you’ve got.
View across Michigan Ave of the Rosa Parks transit center, which despite looking all modern and fancy was sketchy as fuuuuk. The ‘People Mover’ train is in going by on the right. The People Mover is an elevated light rail train that goes in a loop around downtown Detroit and it only costs 75 cents!
An old school Detroit city boulevard. The building in the back left had been abandoned but is now being renovated.
I stayed in Corktown, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It was home to the old Tiger Stadium until it was demolished in 2009, and is still home to the infamously abandoned Michigan Central Station. Corktown was originally settled by Irish immigrants from County Cork, which is where it gets its name.
The Dequindre Cut, a greenway on Detroit’s east side that was converted from an old railway line. Before it was converted, I was told, this was a popular camping place for homeless residents and travelers.
Art along the Dequindre Cut.
Art along the Dequindre Cut. Featuring a train hopping hobo!
Abandoned buildings on Cass St. The little building in the bottom left corner is an old dive called Temple Bar, which has been around for like 30 years and is still running.
The Heidelberg Project.

The Heidelberg Project is a kind of folk art installation that sprung up on of Heidelberg Street in Detroit’s ‘Black Bottom’ neighborhood. Almost all of the art is done by one guy– Tyree Guyton. He builds his art pieces in abandoned lots or on abandoned buildings in his neighborhood, as a response to the neighborhood’s deterioration. The City of Detroit has demolished a bunch of the buildings where he’s made his art, and several of them also burned down due to arson in recent years.  Still, many of the pieces still exist and are a sort of grassroots attempt at renewing a neighborhood that has been largely abandoned.  More info: https://www.heidelberg.org/

The Heidelberg Project.
Porch art at the Heidelberg Project.
The Heidelberg Project.
The Heidelberg Project.
An abandoned lot turned into public gather space.
The king of book stores.
John K. King bookstore.
John K. King bookstore,  “Trees and Forestry” section.
John K. King 4th floor map.
The Tina Belcher section.
Abandoned building being rebuilt, Detroit.
Architecture, Detroit.
The UFO Factory. RIP??

Okay, so this is the UFO Factory (pictured above), a local spot for punk music and good food, where working class/service industry type peeps hang out.  Probably hipsters too, so I’ve heard, but I don’t know because I was there kind of early on a weekday, not during hipster prime-time.  It happens to be located in a spot that is being developed into new condos and shopping space. Literally, on either side of this little building, new high rises are currently being built. When I visited I talked to Erin, the bartender (who is originally from Portland!) about the encroaching development. She said that the bar planned to stay, but they didn’t know what would happen in the future.  Then, a few weeks after I left Detroit, I heard that the UFO Factory had been shut down, because the nearby construction had caused one of its walls to collapse.  WTF??!!  Read more here.

Abandoned lots in the Corktown neighborhood.
A tree nursery built in an abandoned lot in Corktown.
Sunset just outside Detroit. Hard to see, but there are a million birds in the air.
Whoop whoop! Back on the Greyhound. Living the high life– don’t be jealous.



The Amtrak Ride from Chicago to Washington DC

Chicago’s Union Station, a place I got to know well.

Here we go again, back on the train for another 2 day journey!  This time I am headed from Chicago to Washington DC.  AND… this time I have a sleeper car!

Hanging out in Chicago’s Union Station for the fourth time this month. Fun fact: an Amish gentleman took this photo. Fun fact: it took him three tries because he kept putting his thumb over the camera lens.
My little sleeper car cabin. Was so psyched for this.
Sunset, going through Indiana. Spoiler alert: the next 200 miles is back to back cornfields.
Sleeper caaaaaaar! This is what it looks like when the seats are turned into a lil’ bed. So cute.

The sleeper car, though small, still lived up to all the hype in my head.  There were little nooks and crannies and things that pulled out of things and it was just all so friggin’ cute, like a little doll house.  A slightly smelly, well used doll house.  If you’re like me you might enjoy watching some youtube video tours of the sleeper cars.  I got kind of obsessed with watching them at the end of spring term. I don’t know whats wrong with me, I’m weird.

Another fun thing about the sleeper car, if you are into meeting other people, is that you get free meals in the dining car.  The dining car has communal seating, so if you are a person traveling solo you will most likely be seated at a table with three strangers.  I have yet to have a negative experience with this set-up, even despite my natural tendency to introversion.  Generally I’ve found my fellow travelers to be friendly, polite, and interesting.  I think I eventually get bored enough of my own company that I am willing to talk to just about anyone.  Of course, like any public gathering, its best to avoid the following topics: politics, drugs, and reproductive rights.  Consider yourself warned!   ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Folks hanging out in the observation car after dinner.
Pastoral rural Pennsylvania.
The Potomac River.

Photo Diary: Chicago

A view of Chicago’s iconic architecture from the river. The Marina City buildings are on the left, and the Wrigley Building can be seen in the middle background.
These adorable old-timey walk signals were killin’ me.
The “Return Visit” statue in Pioneer Court, depicting Lincoln explaining the core tenants of the Gettysburg Address to a modern man wearing a cable knit sweater.
Stormy summer skies in Chicago.  Kind of typical midwest summer weather.
Kingston Mines jazz club. Is this meant to be a reference to the Handmaiden’s Tale??
Graceland Cemetery was one of my favorite places in Chicago. Historic burial grounds and, of course, a certified arboretum.
The grave of renowned architect Louis Sullivan.
A tree identification tag at Graceland Cemetery.
The grave of Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency “a friend to honesty and a foe to crime”.
Waiting for the L-train.
Public art in the Pilsen neighborhood.
A record shop in Lincoln Park. The building had some cool architectural features.
Public art in the Pilsen neighborhood.
Public art along the train tracks, Pilsen.
Public art, Pilsen.
Public art along the train tracks, Pilsen.
Fire escapes, downtown Chicago.
The view of downtown Chicago from Wicker Park.



Photo Diary: Indianapolis

Looking downtown from the Fountain Square neighborhood on the Indy Cultural Trail.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is an 8-mile urban bike and pedestrian path in downtown Indianapolis that connects neighborhoods and cultural districts and serves as the downtown hub for central Indiana’s greenway system.  It was finished in 2013 and it cost about $63 million dollars, split about halfway between private and public funding.  In addition to the 8-mile look around downtown, it also connects to the Monon-trail, which is a rail-trail located on the old Monon Train line that used to connect Indianapolis and Chicago (and I wish it still did– riding the Greyhound sucks!).  The Monon-trail runs about 18 miles and runs from downtown Indianapolis through the Broadripple neighborhood, which is a big shopping and nightlife hub located about 10 miles from downtown.

The Indy Cultural Trail signage.
Well-used bike share along the Indy Cultural Trail.
Several greenspaces along the Trail are planted with native species by Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.
“The Public Collection”, billed as a “public art and literacy project consisting of artist-designed book share stations, developed to increase access to books and art”. To me it just looked like a kind of jankey free box, but you know, I’m no art expert. I’ll just say that that some ideas are better than others, and this one is kind of a dud.
Electric car-share along the Cultural Trail. I wanted to rent one but in order to get the student discount (significant savings!) I had to send them a copy of my student ID to be verified, which can take a few days. I wish I had done this ahead of time, I would have loved to check one of these puppies out!
Map and info sign for the Monon Rail-trail.
Signage and free-to-use bike tools along the Monon Rail-trail.
Ooops, I forgot to take any photos when I was in Broad Ripple, but here is one from Visit Indiana (https://visitindiana.com/blog/) so you can kinda see what it looks like.
One of Indiana’s larger employers, Eli Lilly, is a pharmaceutical company that has manufactured everything from antibiotics to anti-depressants and methadone. This is a 3 acre “sustainability garden” that they built on their corporate campus near downtown Indianapolis.
South entrance of Crown Hill Cemetery.

Crown Hill Cemetery is a historic cemetery in Indianapolis founded in 1863 and is the fourth largest cemetery in the U.S.  It features a national cemetery for fallen veterans, a confederate mound where confederate prisoners of war were buried, and is the final resting place of John Dillinger, Dr. Gatling (inventor of the Gatling gun) James Whitcomb Riley, and a whole bunch of governors and vice presidents.

I don’t know who this family is, but their gravestones were giving me sinister-goth-villain realness.
Bluegrass at the Melody Inn.

This bar and music venue, called the Melody Inn, has been in Indianapolis since 1935. I went to see a bluegrass show there and the three acts were from three generations of the same family. Pretty much everyone there knew each other or were related somehow, but before you think it got all “Deliverance”, I will tell you, it did not.  Most people were pretty friendly and surprisingly welcoming to the tattooed Asian stranger (me).  Maybe they thought I was there for ‘Punk Rock Night’, which was going to start later in the evening.  Little did they know I am possibly too old to stay up for Punk Rock Night anymore.  After the show was over, I did get into a long and convoluted conversation with one of the band members about “Gospel Metal” (which I did not realize was a thing but couldn’t say I was that surprised), and a band he liked called “Convictions”, which I think is a hilarious and appropriate name for a gospel metal band.  When I got back home, I found Convictions on Wikipedia.  The article says that “the band describes their genre as a style they’ve created called ‘Aggressive Worship’ which is an emotional mix of spirit filled hardcore and ambiance”.  You learn so much in Indiana!

Interview: Cherie Fischer, U.S Forest Service

Stewardship Butterflies

Cherie Fischer works out of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station at Northwestern University.   She has worked with the Forest Service’s Urban Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program to collect tree and land use data in the Chicago region.   Cherie was also involved in The Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (Also called STEW-MAP), and she has recently been working with Chicago Wilderness on their “Force of Nature” awards which go to community members or groups for their efforts in conservation, restoration, advocacy, and/or educational activities that are inspirational examples for others.

Cherie and I first talked about her work with STEW-MAP which is a nation-wide research program that maps environmental stewardship groups in different cities and regions.  The study is designed to answer the questions: Which environmental stewardship groups are working across urban landscapes? Where are they, what type of stewardship are they doing, how are they being funded, and how effective are they?  The researchers also did network analyses of these groups, attempting show the connections between environmental groups and identify important stewardship “nodes” within the network.  One of their main objectives was to identify where stewardship is or is not taking place to highlight gaps and find opportunities to better local conservation goals.  

I asked Cherie, based on her experience with STEW-MAP, what barriers she sees to engaging a more diverse audience in forestry and environmental stewardship.  For one, she says that we should consider that many people are already engaging in environmental stewardship but not labeling it as “environmentalism”.   STEW-MAP was one attempt in capturing projects that are not traditional or professional programs but who do environmental stewardship.  

“The formal environmental movement (nationwide) is perceived as white and middle class.  However there are a lot of people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists who embody sustainability and environmental goals.”

As an example of a group doing non-traditional stewardship work, Cherie told me about one of the winners of the Force of Nature awards.  Migration and Me, a program that describes itself as “focused on conservation and stewardship that engages people of faith in sharing their personal migration stories, connecting their stories to migration of other species”.  Migration and Me gets people to share their personal stories of migration and relate those experiencing to animal migration, in this case the migration of Monarch butterflies. They work with a dozens of places of worship, and across faiths.  The goal of the program is not only to help people understand their own narratives of identity and place, but also to have them connect their own lives with the natural world, in the hopes they will become stewards to nature.

Fall migration map of the Monarch Butterfly.

This program really got me thinking about other creative ways to engage people with their environment.  I love it!!

How do we get “beyond the choir”?

Cherie also had more advice for me.  She says that in order to affect real change, and reach broader audiences with messages of sustainability and environmentalism, we need to go “beyond the choir”.  What does this mean?  It means that we should not choose the easy road by “preaching to the choir” and only reaching the usual suspects.  However, when trying to reach more diverse audiences, we cannot push our message on them, or assume the moral or ideological high ground.  If we truly want equity and diversity in environmentalism, then we should value and respect the opinions and beliefs of others, and step back and allow them to tell us what they need.

“The idea of engaging people is the important part in the end.  Don’t go to meetings trying to push your own agenda.  Open your ears and listen to what the community actually wants.  Sit down and get to know people FIRST.  Build that relationship first before asking something from people. ” 

What I took away from my conversation with Cherie is that in order to build a movement that can make real change, we need to reach over the isle across cultural and economic divides.  We need to stop preaching to the choir, sit back, and start listening.

Note: The views and opinions expressed by Cherie Fischer come from her own personal experiences and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Forest Service.