Planting Trees, Redeeming Lives
By Richard Conniff, Photos by Alen MacWeeney
One Saturday morning last fall, a group of New Haven teenagers took to the streets in the face of one of the city’s grimmer urban perils—Yale and Harvard football fans in cars and on foot pressing resolutely toward the Yale Bowl for The Game. The timing was bad. The teenagers were moving young trees into position for planting, with the help of a hand truck. Some of the trees were 20 feet long and weighed 300 pounds, and the drivers were in a hurry. “They didn’t give us much room to cross,” Terrance Walker, a junior at Common Ground High School, recalled recently. But it was late in the season and the group needed to get 17 trees into the ground. It was, ironically, a traffic-calming experiment, built on the hypothesis that trees can change behavior.
Neighbors on Edgewood Way had complained about speeding, and, at least in theory, narrower sightlines from a corridor of trees would slow traffic. If that didn’t work, a city official suggested, the trees would at least dampen the sound of car engines—and look good doing it. Speed bumps or other engineered remedies would have cost anywhere from $15,000 to $250,000, he said, versus $4,000 for the trees. Common Ground students will track the results for four years to see if it works, using speed data from the city.
The Edgewood Way planting was an experiment in other ways, too. A few years ago, city officials noticed that F&ES’ Urban Resources Initiative (URI) was getting trees into the ground for less than the city paid to have professional landscapers do the job—and with a 92 percent survival rate versus a 60 percent national average for professionals. A key difference was that URI’s Community Greenspace program typically found neighborhood stewards for the new trees, often among the volunteers who had planted them. Instead of being threatened by that success, city officials decided to capitalize on it by turning New Haven’s entire tree-planting program over to URI, with the city paying for the trees and URI providing the labor.
“When the city asked us to be the sole source of planting,” says URI director Colleen Murphy-Dunning, “our board said, ‘Let’s use this as a way to engage teens,’” a segment of the city population that Community Greenspace had generally failed to reach. The result was a new program called GreenSkills, which hires and trains teenagers to plant trees as an early step into the job market. It worked out so well that this year the city is roughly tripling the challenge to URI.
“Our partnership with URI is gold,” says Bob Levine, New Haven’s director of Parks, Recreation and Trees. “They’re so focused on planting trees, they do it so well and they communicate so well with the people in the neighborhoods and the aldermen—they do absolutely everything. And after four or five years, not to have any complaints—any complaints—and to have people say they’re happy, it’s just gravy for us.”
The partnership also turned up a major weakness in the city’s tree program. Until 2007, New Haven had been planting about 200 street trees a year. But maintenance crews were also removing 500 dead, diseased or dangerous trees each year. That gap became the focus of attention at a meeting last summer where URI was presenting a satellite study of New Haven’s tree canopy, prepared with the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Vermont. The declining state of the city’s tree canopy caught the attention of Mayor John DeStefano Jr. So did the disparities in tree cover in different neighborhoods, from 64 percent in West Rock down to 23 percent in the Hill and 6 percent in Long Wharf. In October, DeStefano announced a program to add 10,000 new trees over the next five years, with half to be planted on private property by companies, universities and other organizations—and half to be planted by URI.
Thus GreenSkills will hire and train 50 teenagers this year, with the first crew planting 300 trees during the spring season alone. Another new URI program, modeled on a similar effort in New York City, will employ people re-entering the community after being released from prison. And residents of the Crossroads substance abuse program, who have worked as Community Greenspace volunteers in the past, will now also become paid workers. The aim isn’t just to plant 1,000 trees, this year’s goal for URI, up from 350 last year, or to reverse the decline in New Haven’s tree cover, says Murphy-Dunning, but also to build communities economically, socially, environmentally, even spiritually. And in that sense, what’s happening on Edgewood Way is part of a much larger global experiment in urban ecology—a new way of looking at cities and people that owes much of its rising popularity to work originally done at Yale.