Most people by now are fairly well attuned to the benefits of trees environmentally, socially, mentally, and more. However, less people are aware of how tree canopy is distributed among a city and its neighborhoods.
A trend across the country in large cities is that trees, and the benefits they bring, are distributed inequitably across neighborhoods based on race and income. Higher income neighborhoods with majority white residents have over 75% tree canopy coverage as compared to lower-income neighborhoods with around 15-30% canopy cover. These are large discrepancies that result in hotter environments, more air pollution, and factors contributing to respiratory conditions like asthma for children.
These trends are reality here in Portland: west Portland (excluding Forest Park) has about 75% canopy cover in most neighborhoods, while east Portland neighborhoods average about 15-30% canopy cover. Friends of Trees prioritizes planting street and yard trees in neighborhoods on the eastside of Portland to help decrease this disparity.
However, many people are wary about – if not outright opposed to – getting a tree of their own because of the costs of tree care, which can increase as a tree grows. This is just one of the reasons Friends of Trees provides tree care along with tree planting, including proper pruning of young trees at no cost to the property owner. And we’re exploring ways to increase the availability of low to no cost tree care for folks who need it, because we know the benefits of trees far outweigh the costs.
In the City of Portland, tree care and maintenance costs are the responsibility of the tree’s adjacent property owner. This is an inequitable financial burden for low-income households, renters, and populations vulnerable to gentrification. Many communities of color cite the financial burdens that a mature tree can bring as a reason to not want to plant trees next to their houses. It’s important to address these very valid concerns since trees have so many benefits, which is why Friends of Trees is continually working on creating programming that is responsive to community needs; in fact, we have funding proposals pending with Portland’s Clean Energy Fund that would help subsidize costs of mature tree care so we can grow our already considerable post-planting tree care services.
Understanding concerns about tree care
In 2018, Friends of Trees partnered with APANO and LARA Media to conduct three focus groups toward better understanding how community members viewed neighborhood trees and tree planting efforts. To increase accessibility these focus groups were conducted in multiple different languages including Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Spanish. Overall, many community members cited the benefits of trees within the city, including their health and environmental benefits:
“Trees are good for the lungs. They are the lungs of the city.”
“In the city, there’s big trees that make the air cooler. It also makes the city greener.”
–participants from the Vietnamese focus group
However, when asked if there are barriers for them to plant trees, many community members cited the long-term costs associated with mature tree care. One participant said: “One of the negatives is that sometimes Portland has a lot of storms and trees fall down when there’s strong wind. I experienced that once. The tree can fall into the house and collapse the house. Usually I try to hire a professional to cut the tree, but it [can cost] thousands of dollars. The tree bothers us.”
Trees and access to the natural environment are integral to healthy, livable neighborhoods. The benefits trees bring are strongest when they are mature, at least 10-15 years after they are planted. However, the fears community members have about the costs trees may bring are also valid, especially since the median household income on the eastside of Portland is lower and there are fears of being pushed out.
Friends of Trees is committed to equitably growing the urban forest through community-centered tree plantings. We offer tree care for the first three years of a tree’s life after it’s planted, including affordable (or free if cost is a prohibiting factor) summer watering service; free mulch; and structural pruning provided at no cost (see the next story for more about our pruning program). Structural pruning on a young tree is vital for its long term health, and can help prevent limbs falling onto a house or car later on in its life, since we can prune for the built environment and the tree will grow into that structure.
However, Friends of Trees also recognizes there are long term costs and concerns that need more support within our communities to make sure the urban forest is distributed equitably. We are continually working on creating programming that is responsive to community needs and when the opportunity arises we pursue grant funding to help subsidize costs of mature tree care. Because we know that, all in all, the positives of trees far outweigh the negatives; as our good friends at J Frank Schmidt like to say, “Trees are the answer.”
Photo: Street tree planting in east Portland, January 2020.
The Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon operates under the principal we are stronger together
APANO’s Policy Director Richa Poudyal talks about APANO’s goals for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation project:
What is the #1 thing readers should know about APANO?
APANO envisions a just world where Asians and Pacific Islanders and communities who share our aspirations and struggles have the power, resources, and voice to determine our own futures, and where we work in solidarity to drive political, social, economic, and cultural change. For climate justice work, we are striving for BIPOC communities in Oregon to exercise self-determination to make decisions about how to move towards a more regenerative economy. We do this work in coalition and side by side with community members most impacted by the impacts of climate change.
Why is APANO involved in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation project?
Within climate justice work, APANO is very interested in creating spaces and structure for place-based community organizing and advocacy. The RWJF project is such a special collaboration between Friends of Trees, PSU, and APANO; it’s collaborations like these that allow multiple organizations to contribute their respective strengths and power to support community members in achieving self determination around greening and localized climate justice work. APANO is so grateful to be a part of this project and to bring a community organizing lens and approach to greening outer East Portland, and to work with Friends of Trees which has the community connections, advocacy skills, and know-how around connecting to and planting trees as a part of a conservation and greening strategy.
What’s the community response to this project?
We are two months into our 12 month project, and are working with an incredible group of twelve community members who live in outer East Portland. Since the kick off of the project has coincided with the heat wave we’ve faced in Portland this year, much of the feedback so far has been around being glad to have a space to do something tangible and locally to actively tackle heat and air quality impacts of climate change that have already been prevalent for our neighbors in outer East Portland. Folks have also expressed gratitude to have the space to connect with others and grieve and process the changes in the land and air around us, mostly caused by humans.
What is the top result APANO would like to see from this project?
For APANO, the primary result that we want to see is community feeling empowered and resourced to both advocate for community-sourced solutions and to create and put forward solutions themselves, outside traditional decision-making institutions.
Thank you Richa! Learn more about APANO.
photo: APANO + Friends of Trees planting event in east Portland
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.
Underserved and BIPOC communities access training & paid internships
As we prepare for the fourth year of offering the Adult Urban Forestry Workforce Training Program there is one thing we know for certain: The community wants this programming. We hear from program participants and partners that this programming is filling a gap through connecting communities underrepresented in the urban forestry and restoration field—primarily communities of color—to training and job opportunities they otherwise would not have.
Over the years program partners have included Verde, APANO, Wisdom of the Elders, Rosemary Anderson High School-POIC, Black Parent Initiative, and the Blueprint Foundation. These organizations help select 10-15 program participants each year, who begin with classroom curriculum and field work, and proceed to paid internships. Read more about the Adult Urban Forestry Workforce Training Program here.
Of course, like everything, COVID forced some changes. What began as a challenge—providing classwork via Zoom—actually turned into a benefit: automatic translation. Which was especially important this year since two program participants, Rogelia and Leticia, speak Spanish. We caught up with Rogelia and Leticia recently, who are both interning with Honl Tree Care, to talk about their experience with this program. Rogelia shares,
“I found out about the program with Friends of Trees from Verde. I was really interested in learning more and meeting more people, so I decided to do it. After the classes, I began to work with Honl Tree Care and it has been such a great experience, I loved getting to work alongside other people and learn how to use new machines. I was able to use the machine that took branches and turned them into mulch. The machines were very new to me—I never knew how the wood chips were made!
“The best part has been learning about new places, new neighborhoods, new parks that I didn’t even know existed, that has been fun. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do next, that is the grand question! I do know that I want to work outside, I love working outside in nature.”
Leticia also appreciated spending time with other people and echoes Rogelia’s praise for their intern hosts, Chad and Isabel at Honl Tree Care. She joined the program because, “I like trees and I wanted to know more about tree care and how trees are planted.”
The Adult Urban Forestry Training Program is possible thanks to funding from the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District. We are pursuing additional funding to ensure this program continues, and grows! Meanwhile, we look forward to introducing you to the next round of interns this fall (If you or someone you know may be interested, please let us know!)—just in time for tree planting season.
Photo, top: Future arborist at work! View from an intern from the training program
If you viewed any of our Earth Month events (here’s the playlist) you probably noticed that we often talk about partnerships and climate justice. Friends of Trees’ community includes partnerships with a number of truly impactful local organizations that work with underserved communities. Underserved communities experience the worst effects of climate change and our partnerships that help connect communities to the benefits of trees play an important role in achieving climate justice.
We have a special request of you: Support our community partners. Yes, Friends of Trees will always need you, but if we are going to achieve true climate justice we all need to support Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) organizations that are part of the movement to ensure equitable outcomes around trees and the urban canopy.
These organizations are Friends of Trees’ partners and need your support:
Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO): Uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice.
The Blueprint Foundation: Uplift, educate, and support the development of black-identified youth and other communities of color.
Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC): Committed to the success of underserved youth and adults.
Wisdom of the Elders: Native American cultural sustainability, multimedia education and race reconciliation.
If you’d like to learn more about how Friends of Trees partners with these organizations visit our website here.
Thank you for supporting our work and the work of our partners, and for being a part of the Friends of Trees community.