New Detroit partnership to begin planting trees where people need them most

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Grant funding totaling $900,000 will help launch an ambitious plan to improve Detroit’s ailing tree canopy and make it more equitable. The effort, dubbed the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership, will begin planting trees this autumn.  

“There has been so much effort here in reinvesting in key assets and services like public transportation, emergency response, street lights, water and sewer infrastructure – this is an investment in a critical infrastructure asset,” Eric Candela, manager of the Community ReLeaf program for American Forests, told Planet Detroit. American Forests is leading the effort with the Greening of Detroit and the city of Detroit. 

The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation awarded grants to two organizations for the effort – $450,000 to American Forests and $450,000 to the Greening of Detroit. The money will support efforts to identify Detroit parcels that most need new trees, secure funding sources to sustain the initiative into the future, and pay for staff to carry out the mission to plant and maintain trees. 

American Forests and Greening say healthy canopy coverage lies in the 30%-40% range – in 2017, Detroit was at about 24%. 

Greening aims to plant about 75,000 trees over the next five years, said Lionel Bradford, its president and executive director, while the city of Detroit told Planet Detroit is separately planning 30,000 more. Candela said American Forests is not putting out any hard targets as many other cities failed to achieve “1 million trees” goals and saw their efforts lose steam. 

Instead, the initial funding is about establishing a sustainable, long-term operation that will make progress well into the future, Candela said. 

“If we can identify the target and then plan for how we get there incrementally over an extended period of time, the tree canopy and residents will be very well served,” he added.

The funding and plan represent a shift of philosophy in Detroit’s canopy management, according to Asia Dowtin, an urban forest professor at Michigan State University. Previously, the city only had the resources to remove dying trees. 

“Now we’re moving into an age where we realize that we need to step it up on the resources side, and we can remove trees, but also get new trees in the ground,” she said.  

A healthy canopy offers a range of benefits, especially as cities face environmental and health pressures from climate change. Canopy shading helps cut down on the “heat island effect” in which blacktops, concrete, and other human-made surfaces radiate heat absorbed during the day.

Tree canopies are also efficient and can cool wide swaths of neighborhoods cheaply – shading has been found to reduce surface temperatures by as much as 45 F, while evapotranspiration, the process of water evaporating from leaves, can lower air temperatures by up to 9F. That ultimately reduces the need for air conditioning, which cuts down on energy use that feeds into the climate change cycle and increases utility bills.

Inadequate tree canopy in Detroit’s Weatherby neighborhood leaves residents vulnerable to heat and poor air quality. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Bradford noted another benefit that is especially needed in Detroit: “With all these heavy storms we’re having – trees absorb water faster than any other mechanism,” he said.

However, tree canopies are typically inequitably distributed in highly segregated cities and regions like Detroit. Lower-income neighborhoods with higher concentrations of people of color often have fewer trees than those in wealthier, whiter blocks. Research has found that lower-income areas in major cities are often more than five degrees hotter than other neighborhoods, which translates into greater vulnerability during heat waves and worse air quality. 

Chronic heat exposure can lead to kidney and cardiovascular disease, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. It’s particularly a problem in low-income neighborhoods where issues like water shut-offs can combine to make health problems more severe. 

Detroit Tree Equity Partnership aims to remedy this with a tree equity plan. Tree equity is a metric that determines whether the health, climate, and economic benefits associated with a healthy canopy are distributed equitably across socioeconomic boundaries. 

American Forests puts its minimum target tree equity score at 75. Overall, Detroit has a tree equity score of 80, but about one-third of its block groups score below 75, and some as low as 36. The city will need around 280,000 more trees to boost every neighborhood above the minimum target tree equity score of 75, meaning planting at a clip of about 14,000 trees or more each year for the next two decades.

Until this year, the city and nonprofits have largely taken a “patchwork” approach to plant more trees, but American Forests and Greening plan to be more systematic going forward. They’re using a “tree equity score analyzer” to help determine each parcel or parcel group’s score and prioritize them accordingly. The tool incorporates data from the US Census Bureau, Center For Disease Control, U.S. Geological Survey and other public agencies to generate the score. 

“It produces an objective standard that is very much an apple-to-apples comparison,” Candela said.  

The analyzer will determine the number of trees needed to plant based on the number of people in a parcel group. For example, Candela said that a sparsely populated neighborhood or block with many trees will score better than a densely populated block with the same number of trees. The densely populated block with a lower score would get priority, and the groups will be “planting in a way in which we’ll do the most good,” he added. 

“We can get down to the parcel level by looking at how different neighborhoods throughout the city compare, and then we can set priorities and work in intelligent and strategic ways,” Candela said. 

This approach convinced Erb the project is worth funding, said Neil Hawkins, president of the Foundation.

“Trees have many incredible benefits, including reducing stormwater runoff, improving resilience to climate change, moderating temperature, and making the air healthier,” he said. “Trees planted strategically and thoughtfully can have many positive impacts for people and the environment.”

An example of a high-quality tree canopy in Detroit’s Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Another key piece of the equation is sustaining funding into the future. Though the $900,000 will help launch the effort, it will need much more over time to maintain trees and continue planting.

That’s why the partnership will direct some grant resources toward ensuring the groups obtain more money from foundations or other sources to see the project through for decades. It will use objective data on the social, economic, and health benefits of American Forests’ and Greening’s work to help convince funders to support a continued effort.

The funding will also ensure the effort is staffed with the workforce needed to carry out the plan. The city told Planet Detroit it separately added a full-time staff member to work on improving the canopy.  

“Two things that are underappreciated and exceedingly important in purpose and value are objective data and sustainable funding sources,” Candela said. “Trees are an asset we want to invest in long-term, but you don’t want to invest money in an elaborate hole in the ground.” 

The project isn’t without significant challenges, including die-offs estimated to exceed 5,000 trees annually in Detroit. That’s primarily a result of poor maintenance and disease. The problem is exacerbated by the city mainly planting maples in past decades, which means much of the canopy is susceptible to the same diseases, like Emerald Ash and Japanese longhorn beetles.

A nursery operated by Greening, which will staff and perform the actual plantings, is growing 32 species of trees with a focus on natives, which will help with diversity issues, Bradford said. 

Another challenge is overcoming resident opposition, as many homeowners view trees as a liability after experiencing decades of poor city maintenance. Falling limbs can damage cars or cause outages, and trimming branches can be a problem for low-income residents who can’t afford the burden in cities like Detroit. 

“There’s a feeling that these trees get planted and aren’t necessarily maintained by the people who are planting them,” Dowtin said. 

The city and nonprofits have been active in meeting with residents, but Dowtin said the first step is to listen to them and hear out what they want and don’t want.

“It’s less of ‘Let me convince you that this is good,’ and more of just letting folks come to that realization on their own, with the acknowledgment that many just don’t come around to it – and that’s their business that should be respected,” Dowtin said. 

She added that nonprofits and the city need to offer open lines of communication for residents who need answers or guidance on how to deal with trees.

Bradford said Greening is highlighting the plan’s economic component to help sell the plan to Detroiters. 

“Planting 75,000 trees takes a lot of manpower, and that’s wages for Detroiters, that’s jobs, and when you talk about it in terms of job creation, it hits home for folks,” he said.  

Candela noted that an anti-tree sentiment isn’t unique to Detroit and “changing the paradigm under any circumstances in any city is difficult,” but he’s optimistic.  

“We are proposing to flip the script and treat trees as assets that provide public health and environmental services,” he said.


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