Local Self Reliance: Urban Forestry

Trees have become scarse in American cities. Community-led urban forestry initiatives are trying to change that.

| September/October 1979

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    Urban forestry can provide blighted neighborhoods with visual interest, shade in the summer, and a symbol of life and vitality.

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Trees are all too often a scarce resource in North America's cities, and this "urban deforestation" is unfortunate for a number of reasons. Streetside greenery can, for example, soften a harsh urban environment, absorb pollution, cool the hot summer air, and—most important—provide a highly visible symbol of neighborhood revitalization.

Many of today's stretched-to-the-breaking-point city budgets just don't include enough money to support urban forestry, however, and even when modest efforts are made, the trees suffer very high mortality rates. (In New York City, for instance, species that would survive for upward of 50 years in the country usually die in less than seven!) The problem is a combination of urban vandalism and the fact that most metropolitan tree-planting is done by city crews whose members are ignorant of basic tree care techniques.

Recently, though, community planting projects in which residents plant and care for their own trees have begun to reverse the trend toward greenless cities. The Oakland (California) Tree Task Force, for example, has established an urban forest—planted by neighborhood residents—in a vacant lot next to one of the city's "toughest" schools.

The Oakland group set up their planting day as a community fair complete with food, balloons, T-shirts, and a disc jockey from a local radio station. When the area youngsters showed up looking for a good time, The Task Force folks showed them how to plant and care for the trees. You can be sure that after having a hand in its creation, the students made sure their forest was protected.

In fact, only one of the schoolside trees has been lost to vandalism so far, and the neighborhood "foresters" quickly learned that the damage had been done by a boy who had not participated in the fair. (The Task Force suggested that he youngster plant a replacement. He was delighted to have the chance, and the forest has been thriving ever since.)

Not long ago, the Oakland Tree Task Force re-formed into a new organization called ON TOP (Oakland Neighborhood Tree Organizing Program).


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