Denise Green has been living in her West Philadelphia home for over 40 years. Years ago, she remembers the neighborhood having great tree coverage. In fact, she used to have a red maple in her front yard that neighbors sat under for shade. The tree is now long gone and so are many of the ones that used to line her streets.
Green is one of 22 “neighborhood ambassadors” chosen to facilitate conversations with their neighbors, in hopes of understanding what people think about their trees—or lack of trees. The ambassador program is part of the city’s 10-year tree plan under development to grow, protect, and maintain the city’s urban forest. “I love nature and appreciate flowers and trees,” says Green. And “[this ambassador program] gives me an opportunity to share this love and explain to people what trees actually do.”
The ambassadors embarked on a six-week training program where they engaged in candid conversations with neighbors and photographed the greenery in their neighborhoods. “Visual imagery can evoke so much feeling and memory from the viewer as well as the person who is actually photographing and documenting,” says Sahar Coston-Hardy, a Philadelphia-based photographer who worked with the ambassadors on photography skills. “[The city’s] neighborhoods are all different but make up Philly as a whole,” she adds. And it’s through these images and documentation of stories that Philly can understand and identify optimal areas for tree planting.
A “Walkshop” to study Philadelphia's tree cover. (Photo by Sahar Coston-Hardy)
In the past decade, Philadelphia has lost 6% of its tree canopy, roughly 1,000 football fields’ worth of trees. But its tree loss isn’t equitably distributed. Green’s neighborhood of Cobbs Creek is one of five neighborhoods the city identified as having particularly low tree canopy coverage.
Trees have numerous environmental benefits for a city. They aid in stormwater runoff and help reduce air pollution and soil erosion. But the benefits extend beyond just aesthetics and the environment. “We have been looking at the tree canopy as really critical public health infrastructure,” says Alexa Bosse, a founding principal at Hinge Collective, a public-interest design firm and subcontractor for the plan.
Trees, particularly the shade of trees, are crucial in reducing the urban heat island effect—when some urban areas are significantly hotter than nearby areas. “We can see the tree canopy isn’t equally distributed but people can also feel it,” says Erica Smith Fichman, a community forestry manager for Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation. For example, the Kensington neighborhood can be 15-20 degrees hotter than the affluent Chestnut Hill on a summer day.
“People have a really strong emotional connection to trees. But this disparity between where there are trees and where there are not trees feels very personal to a lot of people,” says Bosse.
As an attempt to understand these emotional connections better, Hinge Collective along with the city and other subcontractors created this tree ambassador program. Essentially, the program trained the ambassadors to be storytellers, visually and vocally, on what their communities like—and dislike about trees.
“There is this perception that you love trees or you hate trees. And that there are people you can’t convince,” says Fichman. “But that’s not really the case. There are people who love trees and who have the resources to have them in their lives. And then there are people who understand the value of trees but don’t feel like they can afford at the very basic level to have a tree on their property or around their property.”
In all, ambassadors conducted 62 interviews and shared over 600 hours of wisdom with the design team. Among the things they learned was that because the city hasn’t always done the best job maintaining its existing trees, many of Green’s neighbors felt planting trees would do more harm than good. Oversized trees cause sidewalks to buckle. Unruly roots can clog pipes and disrupt plumbing. And newly planted trees are at risk of being stolen. “What was more important to [many] than having more trees was having the trees they have now being proactively maintained,” says Bosse.
Beyond the ambassador program, the team attended community meetings in priority areas. Philly also sent out a city-wide survey about tree planting that garnered 7,000+ responses in eight different languages. And there was an Instagram photo challenge where residents could send in images of trees in their neighborhood. “Connections to these urban forests are very strong. And I think that’s something that we need to honor and value as being a part of what’s important to being a city dweller,” says Bosse.
These conversations have sparked further discussions about long-term policy changes the city can make regarding its tree planting strategies. “We want to update the policy regarding tree planting and protection in the city so that the rules reflect the priorities and the values of the community much better than they currently do,” says Fichman.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Hinge’s Bosse. “We want to lift the voices of communities that are already doing work in these neighborhoods and allow these people to be the stewards and caretakers and have ownership over the environment,” she says.
The plan is in its early stages but it is already showing encouraging signs in the City of Brotherly Love. Last week, the city announced it will offer up to 1,000 Philadelphia residents a free tree to plant this fall. “I’m excited about the ability of this plan to start to make small changes that will grow into larger changes,” Bosse adds.
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
Mia Jackson is a master's student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. Her writing about cities, health and innovation has appeared in Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The Virginian-Pilot and elsewhere.