Local Self Reliance: Urban Forestry

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

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

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

Philadelphia is another example of a city with a thriving
urban greening program. The Pennsylvania Horticultural
Society provides young trees (at $5.00 each) to any
neighborhood in which 80% of the residents petition for the
service. The Society also arranges for the required
permits and provides a machine for any necessary sidewalk
cutting. The neighborhood residents remove the
pavement, dig the pits, and plant the trees.

Once the young plants are in the ground, the PHS people
provide stakes and wires as needed, plus advice on tree
care. This project and others like it involving
community participation have made Pennsylvania a
model “urban agriculture” state.

While the Pennsylvania tree planting movement is run
through the state’s Horticultural Society, a Los Angeles
group called TreePeople demonstrated what can be
accomplished on a more personal scale with a project
that started out as a one man operation! Because, although
TreePeople founder Andy Lipkus now has a staff of nine
helpers, he began his arboreal endeavor alone. His
group has since helped residents plant more than 5,000
trees of smog-tolerant species throughout southern
California. In fact, the group’s education program will
have reached some 15,000 people by the end of 1979!

The Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG), another “city forestry”
organization, has gone to the economic “roots” of the
problem and established a series of small scale community
nurseries in an effort to produce trees that city residents
can afford. According to BUG, a tiny 70¢ Japanese
cherry seedling can grow to be five feet tall in less than
three years in an urban tree garden. (And such an
established tree would sell for as much as $30 at a
commercial nursery.) The group is in the process of growing
scores of affordable ornamentals that add greenery to
land which (because of contamination from lead and other
heavy metals) is unfit for vegetable gathering.

For the past several years, the good folks at the Institute
for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C. have worked to
help urban residents gain greater control over their lives
through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and
concepts. We strongly believe that more people (city
dwellers and country folk alike) should be exposed to the
Institute’s efforts, which is why we’re now making this
“what’s happening where” report by ILSR staffers one of
MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ regular features.

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