Detroit was once known for its tree-lined streets. In some neighborhoods, you can still see what that looked like. But in many others, the tree canopy is decimated.
A press conference near St. John Lutheran Church in Detroit’s Barton-McFarland neighborhood was the backdrop to announce the launch of a new initiative to change that. The Detroit Tree Equity Partnership is “a five-year pilot program to improve the city’s tree canopy and employ hundreds of Detroit residents in tree care and maintenance jobs,” according to a press release.
Partners in the program include American Forests, the City of Detroit, DTE Energy, Detroit Future City and The Greening of Detroit.
“Tree equity is not about trees; it’s about people. It’s about what trees can do for people, for our health, for our wealth, for well-being, for economic opportunity,” said Jad Daley, President and CEO of national nonprofit American Forests.
In 2021, American Forests released its Tree Equity Score tool, which measures canopy coverage across socioeconomic lines. Overall, the city scored 80 out of 100, but a substantial number of Detroit neighborhoods scored much lower.
The partnership aims to raise $30 million over five years to plant 416,000 medium-sized shade trees in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation awarded grants to two organizations to launch the effort – $450,000 to American Forests and $450,000 to the Greening of Detroit. According to a press release, the U.S. Department of Agriculture contributed another $485,000 to the project earlier this summer.
Additional funding could come from the federal Inflation Reduction Act.
“I secured $1.5 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act — the single biggest climate investment in U.S. history — to support innovative climate initiatives like this in Michigan and across the country, said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
“The greatest health threat from climate change is extreme heat and trees are our number one defense against extreme heat,” Daley said during the press conference. “They’re also a powerful defense against air pollution. They’re even important for our mental health.”
American Forests recommends Detroit shoot for 40% tree canopy coverage; in 2017, the city measured its tree canopy coverage at 24%. In recent decades, a lack of funding and resources combined with a distrust of government has created a challenging environment for the city’s comprehensive, coordinated tree canopy management efforts.
“If you had come with me to any neighborhood meeting in this city five years ago, the neighbors wanted to talk about the dead tree in front of their house that they were afraid was gonna fall on the house, fall on the car, fall on the children,” said Mayor Mike Duggan. “The city had neglected the maintenance for so long that we had dead trees, 10,000 across the city that were a danger.”
The city has “gotten rid of the vast majority of those trees,” through the mayor’s “10,000 up, 10,000 down” campaign, Duggan said. And the city has planted more than 5,400 trees in recent years, according to Angell Squalls, a city forester. But improving the city’s tree equity score and catching up with die-offs will require a more robust approach.
“We are very excited about the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership. We’ve already started planting,” said Lionel Bradford, executive director of The Greening of Detroit. “For this partnership, we’re training individuals with barriers to employment and finding good jobs for them in urban forestry, agriculture, and nursery care.”
Beyond jobs, Stabenow lauded the project as a bulwark against climate change.
“It’s about investing in neighborhoods; it’s about the quality of life; it’s about the climate crisis,” she said. “I mean, if you plant a tree, it does nothing but suck carbon out of the atmosphere.”