Urban Ecology

Planting Trees, Redeeming Lives

Springtime in the City

If urban ecology means thinking of trees as the means of manipulating big stuff like air, water and climate, it also means using them to change individual lives. Both halves of the equation matter, particularly to URI interns who have gone on from Baltimore and New Haven to work in cities around the world. (They now constitute what Grove calls “a Yale urban ecology mafia.”) “I used to work in Baltimore in the early 1990s, going out to plant trees with recovering addicts, folks who were homeless,” says Erika Svendsen ’93, “and they’d say, ‘I did this when I was 15, and I felt so good.’ These kinds of memories don’t extinguish. The success isn’t that you get somebody to be a tree pruner for the rest of their lives, but how they live those lives, their perspective on the environment.”  

Svendsen’s now a U.S. Forest Service social scientist, tracking the shadow government of community groups and volunteers who do planting and upkeep in neighborhoods around New York City. The stories they tell her are often personal, she says. “‘I started this garden after the loss of my son.’ Or ‘I started this garden because we don’t care much about seniors in this country, and I wanted to do something for them.’ These are the moments when they step out of themselves. It’s a very strong feeling.” For Svendsen, the biggest change produced by the new urban ecology movement isn’t in the landscape. “It’s in here,” she says, tapping her heart. That attitude comes directly from Bill Burch, she says: “He gave me a whole framework, a way of seeing, interpreting, a way of hoping that change is possible, and it lies within people and the environment.” 

James Jiler
Ben Thacker
James Jiler ’95 designed a prison horticulture program for inmates on Rikers Island in New York City.

Burch also taught that those inner changes can produce measurable results in peoples’ lives. For instance, after doing URI internships in Baltimore and New Haven, James Jiler ’95 went on to run a “prison horticulture” program for inmates on Rikers Island in New York City. In an introduction to Jiler’s 2006 book on the program, Doing Time in the Garden: Life Lessons Through Prison Horticulture, a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction recalls his reaction when the Horticultural Society of New York first proposed the idea: “Are you insane?” In fact, prison farming has had a long history in the United States. But Jiler designed the Rikers Island program not just to produce crops or provide garden therapy, but to teach things like science, English literacy and basic life skills. A job placement program eventually expanded into post-release training to ease the transition back into society. (That program is the model for the Community Greenspace prison release program started this spring in New Haven.) 

The underlying idea was that tending a garden creates an unspoken contract between the plant and the gardener and draws people into a dialogue with their environment. “With some people it takes a little longer, because they’re battling real hard-core addictions,” says Jiler, who now runs a similar program in Florida. “It’s not like, ‘Now you’re a gardener, you’re going to change.’ I’ve had people that I got really great jobs for, making $35,000 a year with benefits, working for a conservancy, and then they disappeared one day. Something happens in their lives and they go and smoke a bag of crack, and when you find them again they’re in prison.” A recent Columbia University study found that graduates of the Rikers Island program had a 35 percent reconviction rate after three years—and a 25 percent rate for graduates of the post-release program—both significantly lower than the 45 percent reconviction rate for the general prisoner population.

“The success isn’t that you get somebody to be a tree pruner for the rest of their lives, but how they live those lives.” Erika Svendsen ’93

Thus one sunny morning early this spring, with that possibility of change in mind, a half-dozen men from the Crossroads substance abuse program were out planting red oaks, sugar maples and American lindens at West River Memorial Park in New Haven. Long term, the plan is to take a barren corner at a busy intersection and turn it into a forest 70 years from now, when the canopies have spread out and joined together. Short term, a big, bluff, soft-spoken 42-year-old named Leon  said he is just trying to get his life back together. He worked on a red maple and explained how he lost his way after high school. Now he’s trying to break away from his old neighborhood and old patterns of behavior. He hopes to get certified as a substance abuse counselor, he said.

“I love sharing my story, because alcohol abuse and substance abuse kept me in bondage for so long. I feel free when I’m sharing myself with others.”

So does planting trees help?

“This is new, and it’s therapy,” he said. “Anything that’s new—new people, new sights, new colors, new animals—anything new is therapeutic to me. My old way of life was in a box. I didn’t have any expectations. When you’re living the lifestyle that we once were living, you wear a pair of glasses, not literally but figuratively. Whatever we saw through those glasses, it looked like the same thing. Our focus was on one thing. Now I wear a new pair of glasses. I have a new focus.” Then he finished planting the red maple and moved on to the next hole.

All over town, other URI staff and volunteers were also at work, on the theory that planting trees can take people who are already doing fine and make them better, or connect decent neighborhoods in rich new ways. At Clinton Park in Fair Haven, Community Greenspace manager Chris Ozyck was teaching a crew of teenagers and F&ES students how to plant a bare-root tree. Without a heavy root ball, the trees are less expensive and much easier to handle. But they’re also more sensitive. 

“So the stakes go in first,” he said, “to avoid damaging the roots.” One of the teenagers set a tree in the hole he had dug, and Ozyck said, “How do we check the height? Lay one of the stakes across. We’re a little high here. Where is the root flare? Come over and point it out. Good, right where the roots come out.” He adjusted the height so that the roots flared out just below ground level. Then he showed them how to “muddy in” a tree, adding dirt and water alternately and gently probing with the handle of his shovel to release air pockets. By midday, the group had eight trees in the ground, with all the loose dirt raked up and a neat “donut ring” circling each tree to retain water. “If I leave the dirt on the grass, is it going to look like it was planted by a professional?” Ozyck asked. “No, it’ll look like it was planted by a bunch of amateurs.”    

Just up the road at Chatham Square, a Community Greenspace volunteer group was also out doing their spring cleanup. David Zakur, a Pfizer researcher who is a leader of the group, moved to Fair Haven 15 years ago from a 20-acre horse farm in North Madison. He didn’t know that the Quinnipiac River was two blocks away from his new home, and he thought that the only way to get downtown was by taking a car on I-91. Greenspace gave him a way to discover the city and connect with his neighborhood. He married another Greenspace volunteer. Their 18-month-old, Cole, now often joins them on planting days. 

“The whole angle for doing URI,” said Betty Thompson, another volunteer at work in the Cedar Hill neighborhood, “is if you make it clean, keep it clean and have tree-lined streets, then you have less crime, less prostitution and fewer people who just want to hang out and be a nuisance. How has it worked out?” She laughs. “It’s still a theory, okay? But I think it’s working.”

Then she added, “What we’re trying to have here is a better quality of life.”

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