Engaging Community to Take Climate Action
We know that trees fight climate change. And here at Friends of Trees our experience partnering with thousands of community members tells us that the volunteer experience also helps fight climate change – because folks who volunteer to plant and care for trees often go on to become involved with other environmental issues, including taking climate action.
We’re excited to share that through our partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, OHSU-PSU Joint School of Public Health, and Willamette Partnership, we should soon have quantitative and additional qualitative data to support this. This project recognizes that “where one lives or works, one’s age, if one has pre-existing health conditions or chronic illnesses, and race or income all impacts how and how much climate change harms health.” Friends of Trees’ efforts over the past 20+ years of planting in east Portland and other low-canopy, underserved neighborhoods also recognizes this, and this partnership takes these efforts to the next level, especially around community involvement.
“Engaging with historically marginalized communities about where neighborhood change needs to happen and how it might happen are the first steps to ensuring an equitable urban forestry program.”
– Dr. Vivek Shandas, PSU, School of Urban Studies
A major project milestone is the formation of a community advisory board, facilitated by APANO, and comprised of people who live in, work in, or regularly engage with east Portland’s Jade District. Participants include a Friends of Trees tree recipient, a PSU student, a middle school student, a Rosemary Anderson High School/POIC graduate, a biology educator, and Multnomah County representation. Upcoming CAB activities include a live tree walk in the Jade District, exploring topics such as infrastructure challenges to adding trees (e.g., with so many parking lots, where and how do we plant trees?) and how to address these challenges.
“What’s really exciting about this project is the community advisory board, which isn’t something we usually have the resources to develop.” Michelle Yasutake, Friends of Trees Green Space Program Manager
Michelle’s project role involves a major project milestone, the formation of a community advisory board, facilitated by APANO, and comprised of people who live in, work in, or regularly engage with east Portland’s Jade District. Dr. Shandas is also a strong supporter of direct community involvement, “By integrating community voices with our technical know-how, this project is identifying ‘nature-based solutions’ in areas that have been neglected and disinvested by regional decision makers.”
Friends of Trees wants to do even more to engage people in the community in project planning and prioritizing, and we know that the best way to achieve diverse and authentic representation is to be able to provide stipends in consideration of the time it takes people to participate. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recognizes the value of this and its grant includes funding for these stipends. Michelle further emphasizes the importance of community involvement,
“This project, and the community advisory board, are so important to Friends of Trees’ goals around equity, diversity and inclusion and our efforts to genuinely work with the people who actually live and work in the community, and to do so in a way that ensures community members feel like they are truly a part of the process.”
Next steps in the project include data collection through surveying the community; we’re asking questions about neighborhood involvement, civic engagement such as voting, the impact of COVID on household income, and more. We’ll also take on a tangible project such as adding green infrastructure (trees, bioswales, shrubs) to a site identified as a priority by the community; and we’ll be using a research tool called Photovoice.
Photovoice is a hands-on, photography-based research method designed to help community members identify and discuss important community issues and take social action. Photovoice involves using cameras/smartphones to visually document, describe, and discuss important community concerns.
For this Photovoice project, adult and youth community residents will use photography and digital mapping to collaboratively identify and map out important climate, greenspace, and community health concerns—centering the perspectives of residents of East Portland and the Jade District. This will include identifying specific places and spaces that represent important locations of daily climate and greenspace experiences. The goal is to create new local climate and community health data that prioritizes community lived experience and knowledge, such that the data can be used to respond to specific community concerns.
The purpose of this partnership is to “Examine the physical and social dimensions of a tree planting program as a strategy to improve public health and mitigate climate change.” East Portland is one of seven communities across the country where RWJF is studying health, health equity and climate change solutions through its Culture of Health Action Framework, marking RWJF’s first foray into climate health solutions. As this project progresses we’ll share more milestones and updates, so stay tuned!
Photo at top: Friends of Trees East Portland tree planting event, November 2019.
A letter from executive director Yashar Vasef, with an update about community tree planting in Portland
It’s official: We need trees more than ever. Heatwaves, flooding, and all of the increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change make it clear that every day needs to be the day for climate action. Friends of Trees has been planting trees in neighborhoods and natural areas for 32 years; we’re planting street and yard trees that will shade our streets and cool our homes, prioritizing low-canopy, underserved neighborhoods, and we’re also planting native trees and shrubs to help restore sensitive natural areas.
Since 1989 we’ve planted more than 870,000 trees and native shrubs, and we’ve done this through engaging tens of thousands of community members, and while implementing and growing programming that aims to do this work inclusively and equitably.
“At a time when climate change is making heat waves more frequent and more severe, trees are stationary superheroes.” (New York Times, 7/2/2021)
It’s not enough. We are experiencing climate chaos, and trees are increasingly promoted as a major solution, which is why you may have seen Friends of Trees in the news recently. Some of that news focused on our 13 year partnership with the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.
It seemed until recently that funding for our work planting and caring for street and yard trees in Portland was ending, and our concern was that with our funding ending, and without funding being awarded to anyone for community tree planting, this critical work would be suspended for an unknown amount of time. And given climate change’s growing severity, we simply cannot afford to even temporarily pause community tree planting.
It is widely acknowledged that planting trees is a key part of a comprehensive climate strategy. It is our experience at Friends of Trees that planting trees with community members is also key to fighting climate change.
Planting and caring for trees increases community members’ engagement with the environment and overall participation in civic life, including engaging around climate action. There is a ripple effect from volunteering to plant trees that also fights climate change, beyond the actual trees. We expect to have quantitative data supporting this from the research we are conducting through our community grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, look for an update this winter.
We have since learned that we will receive gap funding to partially continue our Portland tree planting and care efforts through spring 2022, and our deepest thanks go to BES, and also to Commissioner Mingus Mapps’ office, which played a critical role in this positive development. However, there are some significant changes that if implemented would drastically change community tree planting in the City of Portland. As details firm up we will continue to keep you updated.
This particular contract is so important because so much of it has funded planting street trees. Trees play an invaluable role in combating heat islands brought on by climate change, and street trees especially so. Streets and concrete sidewalks absorb and retain heat, and release it at night; street trees help fight this effect and are crucial to cooling neighborhoods.
By now most of us are aware of the inequities with Portland’s tree canopy, one result of which is more heat islands in low-canopy/low-income/under-served neighborhoods. Friends of Trees prioritizes these neighborhoods and will continue to advocate for partnerships and practices that plant trees where they are needed most.
Looking past this upcoming season, BES has said they will issue a new RFP (Request For Proposals) for this sort of work–community tree planting and tree care–sometime this fall/winter, and our understanding is that, while they acknowledge the success of our partnership, they would like to engage other, diverse community partners. And to that we say, Yes!
We fully support BES taking on a new approach to their contracts in a way that prioritizes smaller and BIPOC organizations. It is our belief that uplifting such organizations in this work will make our mission stronger and brings all of us closer to climate justice by introducing voices at the table which were previously shut out. This is why Friends of Trees, during the evolution of our 13 year partnership with BES, has entered into partnerships in this work with organizations such as APANO, Blueprint Foundation, POIC, Verde, Wisdom of the Elders, and others.
Yes, BES (and all other public and private funders) should absolutely fund more community organizations in the fight against climate change and toward climate justice, and we fully support an open RFP process. As more funders work to diversify their support of community organizations, we encourage an approach that increases the funding pie (as in, make a bigger pie as opposed to cutting smaller slices) so more partners can be included. The planet is literally on fire and NOW is the time to increase investments in climate change.
Now we really have some work to do. We are preparing for the next planting season, and we’re doing so with significantly decreased funding and options for our largest urban tree planting site, the City of Portland. In October, when we kick off our 33rd season of planting and caring for trees as a community, we’ll be coming to you to ask that you support this work like never before, since this will be a season like never before.
A global pandemic, climate change, social injustice and political strife present our community with unprecedented challenges and often devastating impacts. As we all work together to re-envision our future, a future that is green, healthy, equitable and inclusive, we must ask all our policy makers and leaders where do their values lie. And do their budgets address an urgent climate crisis unlike anything humanity has experienced? For the sake of our communities, our natural habitats, climate refugees, wildlife, and the pale blue dot we call home, together, let’s ensure they are up to the task.
All my best,
Yashar Vasef, Executive Director
Photo, top: Gambel oak tree
We’re thrilled to see scholar, friend, change-maker and overall inspiration Dr. Vivek Shandas featured on Dan Haggerty KGW / KGW-TV talking about urban heat island effect and possible interventions, including … (drumroll please) … trees! We’re also quite excited and honored to have been featured in KGW’s #HeyHelp campaign this week, highlighting all that trees and community tree planting does to combat climate change (while growing community). Check out our own Whitney Dorer’s tree walk with Dr Shandas, always a great conversation about the amazing-ness of trees!
It’s official: We need trees more than ever.
Trees and climate change are in the news a lot lately, and we appreciate the attention being given to trees and community health at this moment and hope to continue to be a part of the conversation, sparking curiosity, joy, and hope among anyone who plants, cares for, and learns about trees in our city. At a time of catastrophic climate events, locally and around the world, we know that planting trees is a key part of a comprehensive climate strategy. Friends of Trees would argue that planting and caring for trees with community volunteers is also key to fighting climate change. We know that volunteering to plant and care for trees increases community members’ overall engagement with, concern about, and continued action regarding the environment, climate change, and overall civic life – there is a ripple effect from tree planting that also fights climate change, beyond the actual trees.
We’ve been successfully engaged in this work with a wide variety of community partners for 32 years, and we look forward to more opportunities to continue to plant trees, together.
Would it surprise you to hear that Eugene has a Mediterranean climate? Warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters are typical of the Mediterranean and, yes, Eugene. And as the climate crisis progresses and changes even more, this likely will become more so. Which means, when we think about which trees to plant, we need to think about trees that will survive and thrive in this climate, and it’s not always the same trees we planted 100 or even 25 years ago.
We’ve been experimenting with planting climate adaptive trees in the Eugene area for more than 10 years now. We look for trees that are adapted to summer drought, as opposed to trees that receive summer rainfall in their native land (like red maple or flowering dogwood); we also take into consideration other ingredients necessary for successfully growing trees, such as Eugene’s poorly drained soils.
Some of these trees that are native elsewhere can be hard to get here, so we take a three phase approach to acquire climate adaptive trees for planting:
We first identify the climate resilient trees available in local nurseries, trees like silver linden or Oregon white oak, and we plant more of them.
Next we look at trees suited for climate change that are available in nurseries outside our area and we import them, sometimes from as far as from central California, or grow them locally, trees like chitalpa or valley oak.
And for our third tier trees, we look at trees not currently available from most nurseries, trees like chinquapin or canyon live oak, and we partner with local nurseries to grow them or we learn to grow them ourselves. We collect and purchase seeds or we buy seedlings (aka, “liners,” in nursery-speak), and learn to grow them to the size and shape suitable for planting on Eugene streets. Since we began this work, some climate resilient trees that weren’t widely available are now grown locally, such as Persian Ironwood or Chinese pistache.
We now plant more climate resilient trees than ever, and get all our trees from Oregon nurseries and our own gardens. We have partnerships with local nurseries that take seeds or liners and grow them out to planting size. We also try a more personal approach: Friends of Trees Eugene Tree Team members Erik and Jeff try growing some of these species in their own yards. As you might expect, this final tactic involves a bit of trial and error; however, we’re pretty pleased to share that more than 25 trees grown from this method we like to call the Tree Team Yard Strategy are now successfully growing in the Eugene area including: Atlas cedar (native to North Africa); Oregon myrtle (though Oregon is in the name, strong specimens are not commonly found in local nurseries); canyon live oak; and California black oak.
Interested in doing some experimenting in your own yard? Drop us a line and we’ll share some seeds or liners to try planting in the fall!
Photo: An Oregon myrtle planted at I-105 Rose Garden, grown from seed by FOTE’s Jeff Lanza.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation partnership focuses on climate change & community health
Does a community based tree planting program help create a more resilient community? We know that low-income, historically under-served communities – often communities of color – experience the most severe consequences of climate change; part of the reason is that so many low-income communities have so few trees and are missing out on trees’ many benefits (more on that below). A new community partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is exploring a better understanding of the comprehensive benefits that trees and community engagement provide.
This partnership is a collaborative research project examining the physical and social dimensions of a community tree planting program as a strategy to improve public health and mitigate climate change. This work includes a local community advisory board, collection and analysis of resident survey data, and the physical analysis of a changing urban tree landscape using data from Friends of Trees’ 30 years of planting trees, focusing on East Portland’s Jade District.
APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon); Portland State University professors Vivek Shandas (School of Urban Studies) and Ryan Petteway (School of Public Health); Willamette Partnership; and Meyer Memorial Trust join Friends of Trees and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as partners in this project. PSU is the lead investigator for the project, managing research design; APANO leads community outreach and engagement as well as the coordination of the community advisory board; and Willamette Partnership is supporting survey design, analysis and communication of lessons learned. Given our 30 years of tree planting and community engagement experience (and thus 30 years of data) Friends of Trees is the project lead, helping develop and collect community surveys, recruit for the community advisory board, and share planting data.
“While climate change can harm the health of anyone in America, some communities and groups of people are more likely than others to be harmed,” said Dr. Mark Mitchell, a public health and environmental health physician. “Climate change exacerbates health disparities in the most vulnerable communities, including tribal communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. That is why culturally relevant solutions that address health equity are critical to creating climate resilience.”
Our community is one of seven across the United States where RWJF is studying health, health equity and climate change solutions. This is a multi-year project, and we’ll share periodic updates along with results at project completion. For more information on health and climate solutions, visit healthandclimatesolutions.org.
Top photo: Friends of Trees planting event in East Portland, February 2020.
Heat map image courtesy of Sustaining Urban Places Research (SUPR) Lab, Portland State University.