Gwendolyn Garth is no stranger to a blank canvas. A self-defined “artivist” who blends art and activism to positively impact Cleveland’s neighborhoods, Garth has left her colorful fingerprint on numerous community murals and outreach projects across Cleveland. Now she’s set her sights on beautifying the city’s vacant lots—and helping to replenish the city’s tree canopy in the process.
“I’ve always been caught up in making the world a better place as a change agent,” says Garth, who resides in the city’s Central neighborhood. “Trees have always been a spiritual thing for me.”
So it’s apt that Garth’s first endeavor is on a former church site, where she is establishing a community art garden in tandem with Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC). Following a 2018 Arbor Day planting, four bushes and 13 trees now shade the formerly vacant lot, which was gifted to Garth by the church’s pastor.
Moving forward, Garth and WRLC will be joining forces with the Sisters of Charity Foundation for land repurposing efforts around Central, which as of 2018 had 52% vacant land (including parks, parking lots, and vacant lots) and a median household income of $7,731. It’s all part of WRLC’s Ground Work program, modeled in part after Philadelphia’s LandCare initiative that transforms vacant lots into vibrant green spaces.
“We’re planting trees on vacant lots owned by Cleveland that aren’t slated for development in the foreseeable future,” says Isaac Robb, WRLC’s Vice President of Planning and Urban Projects. “We don’t own the land, but we plant and maintain the trees for three years until they get established.”
And with nearly 17,000 vacant lots in Cleveland, there is plenty of fertile ground to cover as the city strives to hit its goal of 30% tree canopy by 2040. (To put this in perspective, hitting this mark would require 361,000 new trees planted between now and then.)
To achieve this goal, a dedicated group of Cleveland-based stakeholders has formed the Cleveland Tree Coalition and created buy-in around a coordinated plan that centers equity and grassroots engagement in the reforestation process. The coalition has increased from five founding members in 2015 to more than 40 public, private and community stakeholders by 2020. Along the way, they’ve amassed community buy-in, support and funding from Cleveland’s former mayor, and they’ve planted thousands of trees.
Why it’s time to reforest the Forest City
First dubbed the “Forest City” by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville back in the 1830s, Cleveland has long been known for its lush “Emerald Necklace,” created by the chain of greenery that envelops the city (which today forms the basis for the Cleveland Metroparks). Even the city’s founding is rooted in trees, as 150 “Moses Cleaveland” trees were planted in 1946 to celebrate Cleveland’s sesquicentennial—with some still standing today.
But a steady loss in the city’s tree population threatens that legacy. Cleveland has lost approximately half its canopy since the 1950s – driven by factors like age, loss during storms, and pests like the emerald ash borer.
To reverse this trend, the Cleveland Tree Plan was created in 2015, along with the formation of the Cleveland Tree Coalition to bring it to fruition. The coalition brings together public and private stakeholders, including the Offices of Sustainability for both the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County; WRLC; Cleveland Neighborhood Progress; Holden Forests & Gardens; Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District; and more.
“The scale of the problem is large enough that it really takes a collaborative to make headway,” says Sandra Albro, director of community partnerships for Holden Forests & Gardens. “One-off Arbor Day plantings won’t really make a dent—it’s going to take a sustained effort for 10 to 20 years to really put us at a healthier tree level.”
Though highly involved, these efforts are crucial because trees do so much more than beautify neighborhoods. In cities, trees offer a host of benefits, namely reducing the urban heat island effect and improving air quality. That makes an especially big difference in the lives of low-income communities of color where access to air conditioning and clean air is often compromised.
And as the City of Cleveland’s outgoing Chief of Sustainability Jason Wood sees it, Cleveland’s issue is twofold: not only is the city’s tree canopy continuing to decline, but the trees that are in place aren’t equitably distributed. Following an in-depth data analysis conducted in 2021, the city has developed an innovative Tree Equity Model that will take into account factors such as a neighborhood’s unemployment and poverty rates, percentage of people of color, urban heat island effect and incidence of asthma and coronary heart disease when deciding where to allocate resources for planting trees.
“[Percentage of] canopy cover was what had previously driven our planning, but that’s just one variable,” says Wood, whose Ph.D. study in political science focused on quantitative research methods and whom Albro describes as a “data wonk.” “Moving forward, we want to ensure we’re being as precise as possible in how we target our planting to address different problems at the neighborhood and resident level.”
The new approach can also parse out neighborhoods block by block for maximum impact, thanks to American Forests’ new Tree Equity Score data, launched in 2020. According to Wood, Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood is the perfect example of an area that may benefit from this new approach.
At a relatively robust 25% canopy cover, the neighborhood is categorized as “low-need” by traditional standards, but Wood says that’s largely due to Rockefeller Park on its western border. Just a few blocks away from the park, the area of St. Clair Avenue bordered by East 95th and East 105th Streets has a Tree Equity Score of just 62% with a poverty rate of 85%, making it a prime spot for planting with purpose.
“By getting more precise, we can see pockets within areas we wouldn’t have otherwise targeted,” adds Wood. “We want to get trees into places where they will do the most good.”
Tree equity in action: Slavic Village
As the Cleveland Tree Coalition makes headway, Cleveland is starting to move the needle. In 2019, outgoing mayor Frank Jackson committed an additional $1 million per year for 10 years to fulfilling the Cleveland Tree Plan, and Wood says that funding has been a game-changer—taking the number of trees planted on public right-of-ways from an average of 400-500 annually to 2,000 in 2020 and a projected 3,000 trees for 2022.
But to truly reach the overall goal of 30% canopy coverage by 2040, all hands will need to be on deck—including private property owners and passionate neighborhood advocates. Few know this better than Marlane Weslian, a 48-year resident of the Slavic Village neighborhood who spent several decades working for its community development corporation, Slavic Village Development. Before she retired in 2020, much of Weslian’s work centered on helping the once-redlined neighborhood—dubbed “Ground Zero of the Foreclosure Crisis”—rebound from the Great Recession and its crushing impact. (This CNN Money article listed Slavic Village as the number-one zip code for foreclosures in 2007.)
“Slavic Village was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, so we were dealing with a lot of vacant houses, and that’s one of the reasons we took the lead when trying to figure out ways of repurposing vacant land,” explains Weslian.
Enter “Reforest Slavic Village,” a grassroots initiative to breathe new life into the once-redlined neighborhood via tree planting. At first, the effort was born of necessity as Weslian and her colleagues sought ways to prevent illegal dumping on vacant lots; to do so, they went somewhat rogue in the beginning.
“We decided to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and we started to plant trees right across the front of vacant lots [owned by the City of Cleveland Land Bank],” recalls Weslian. “When you’re driving and you see trees, it softens the effect of having the vacant lots interspersed between houses. We wanted to keep the neighborhood from becoming a dumping ground and support the houses that were still there.”
From there, SVD expanded the effort by offering side yard expansions to residents (approximately 50 per year, according to Weslian) with free trees planted and maintained by Western Reserve Land Conservancy; partnering with organizations such as Holden Forests & Gardens and Third Federal Foundation to host local tree plantings; and securing a grant to hire Bartlett Tree Experts to conduct a yearlong tree canopy inventory, resulting in a 500-page document listing the condition of roughly 2,000 trees.
The work seems to have paid off, as Slavic Village is one of just three out of 34 Cleveland neighborhoods that increased its tree canopy between 2011-2017. Its canopy grew by 1% during that time, with at least 500 trees planted by Weslian’s estimation. “We’ve been planting trees every place we can,” says Weslian, adding that Slavic Village was designated an EcoDistrict in 2019.
And the work matters. Slavic Village has Cuyahoga County’s highest asthma rates due to its location, largely due to its proximity to nearby industrial plants and steel mills. (Weslian herself was diagnosed with asthma as an adult.) “It’s an issue of environmental justice that sometimes gets lost when it comes to urban neighborhoods,” says Weslian. “That’s why it’s important to empower the residents.”
Taking root at the resident level
The momentum in Slavic Village has provided somewhat of a blueprint for other Cleveland neighborhoods, not only by actively planting new trees but also by enrolling residents in the effort.
On the heels of a successful three-year Climate Ambassador program funded by $700,000 in grants (which also took place in the Glenville, Central-Kinsman, and Detroit Shoreway neighborhoods), Slavic Village Development introduced a Community Steward program in 2020. Hailed by Strong Towns as the possible “future of civic engagement,” the program enlists 20+ neighborhood residents who are paid a $1,000 annual stipend to spread the word locally about environmental initiatives and resources.
“We have people in the community going out and talking to their peers about the importance of trees, going to block clubs, and educating people on how to stay cool,” says Weslian. “People are more interested in the trees now, and that’s a huge win.”
Though it’s hard to imagine someone refusing free trees to beautify their property, Albro of Holden Forests & Gardens says it’s more common than one might expect.
“There is often resistance to planting trees, especially in underinvested neighborhoods,” says Albro, citing a 2019 study in Detroit in which 25% of eligible property owners turned down free trees. “For those who’ve grown up for generations in a community without a lot of trees, they don’t have the same intrinsic romanticism about trees that others may have. Instead, they see that trees are expensive, drop leaves, make extra work, and can do damage to sewers and houses.”
To build goodwill and garner more interest, similar programs are taking shape in some of Cleveland’s other East Side neighborhoods. In June 2021, Holden Forest & Gardens joined forces with Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority’s Green Team—which pays CMHA residents to work in community gardens on CHMA properties—with a goal of planting 75 trees across three public housing estates in Central neighborhood. This work is being done with the help of a $20,275 grant from the Cuyahoga County Healthy Urban Tree Canopy Grant Program.
Holden Forests & Gardens also offers the Tree Corps arboriculture workforce development program, while Western Reserve Land Conservancy offers the Sherwick Tree Steward training program, providing training for participants on tree care and maintenance and equipping them to do community outreach on the benefits of trees. It’s all part of enlisting more residents in the effort to reforest the Forest City—and exponentially expanding the Cleveland Tree Coalition’s impact.
“There’s an ecosystem of trust established in neighborhoods, and if your neighbor knocks on the door, the conversation starts from a much different place,” says Colin Compton, neighborhood and housing specialist for the City of Shaker Heights, which borders Cleveland to the southeast.
WRLC’s Robb agrees. “Community champions are critical,” says Robb. “[Grassroots] activists allow us to scale and get out of the organizational noise.”
What the future holds
At face value, the benchmarks set by the Cleveland Tree Plan—30% canopy by 2040—may seem somewhat lofty considering that the current canopy has decreased from 19% to 18% since the plan was first written in 2015. (It was updated with a progress report in 2020.)
But Wood is encouraged by the fact that they’ve slowed the rate of loss from 97 acres to 75 acres annually, and Albro says it can take as long as a decade before a tree shows up on satellite imagery (typically how canopy is assessed), so the fruits of the coalition’s labor may not be readily evident just yet. Plus, Wood is just as invested in how the newly planted trees are benefiting the communities who need them.
“We’ve got very quantitative measures of success, but we also want to see the qualitative ones,” says Wood. “We want to hear from folks that are seeing the value and seeing improvement in their communities.” To that end, Wood and the Office of Sustainability are currently finalizing the city’s Tree Equity model, which will first be utilized to guide the Fall 2022 planting season.
In other updates, the Cleveland Tree Coalition is also continuing to make inroads, having recently forged a partnership with Rid-All Green Partnership to build a containerized nursery inspired by Tree Pittsburgh Heritage Nursery. Located in Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood, the nursery will eventually provide up to 8,000 trees per year in manageable 2- to 5-gallon pots to Cleveland-based community groups.
And Robb and his colleagues at Western Reserve Land Conservancy are hoping to lobby the city to broaden vacant land improvement and disposition strategies, such as its Side Yard expansion program. These policy changes would enable homeowners to purchase vacant lots anywhere on their block (not just directly adjacent to their home) at the incentivized price of $200.
And as for Garth? Come spring, she plans to expand her Central garden by showcasing various African symbols (such as “Ujima,” the Kwanzaa symbol of collective work and responsibility) and other types of art, along with growing edible herbs.
“In the future, I see people gathering here and learning together,” says Garth. “I want to show people that you don’t have to move away to live in a better neighborhood.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES:
As part of Planet Detroit’s ongoing solutions-based reporting on environmental justice and equity, we took a deep dive into the national and local data on tree canopy and tree equity. With funding and collaboration from the Solutions Journalism Network, Planet Detroit reviewed a variety of national datasets, including data on tree equity from American Forests and redlining data, to identify outliers pointing to places with equitable or growing tree canopy, particularly in historically underserved locations. We then reported on the solutions those places have found to build equitable tree cover. See the full in the series here>>>