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.
“CBO partnerships are especially important for an environmental organization like Friends of Trees because they help us effectively reach low income communities and communities of color, communities that are impacted first and the most by climate change.” -Surabhi Mahajan, Friends of Trees’ Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Specialist
Trees + community is so much more than volunteers planting trees together. True community means that a diverse population has access to all of the benefits of trees, especially historically underserved communities of color. And in order to reach diverse communities we need a diverse range of partnerships.
Friends of Trees is fortunate to enjoy some amazing partnerships, and some particularly amazing partnerships are with Community Benefit Organizations (CBOs). CBOs are community-based nonprofit organizations, are often culturally specific, and provide some sort of community benefit. An example in Portland is Verde, which among other services provides workforce training for the Latinx community.
Friends of Trees’ CBO partners include Verde, Wisdom of the Elders, Black Parent Initiative, the Blueprint Foundation, APANO, and POIC. Most of these organizations are partners in our Urban Forestry Training Program*, which helps connect adults to jobs in the Urban Forestry field (learn more about this program here). Beyond this joint endeavor our CBO partnerships take a few forms:
Verde and Wisdom of the Elders each support our tree planting work through planting event preparation, participation, and follow-up, including post-planting tree care. Verde also provides some contractor services at our Portland office on NE MLK Jr. Blvd (get to know more about Wisdom in the next story).
Black Parent Initiative is a community-based organization that serves Black families or families with Black children through home care visits, economic job opportunities, and other services. The FOT-BPI partnership supports connecting Black families in Portland to nature and to tree planting events, as well as connecting to job training programs in the urban forestry and restoration sector.
The Grounding Waters program of the Blueprint Foundation exposes Black urban youth to careers in environmental science, and paid workforce training with Friends of Trees is part of the program. Grounding Water youth train and participate in planting events as Crew Leaders; Grounding Waters youth will also train and participate as Summer Inspectors, checking on the health of trees planted through our Neighborhood Trees Program, which will provide additional learning opportunities. * Note: The Blueprint Foundation is not a current partner in the Urban Forestry Training program, but is considering the program.
Our partnership with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) focuses on the Jade Greening Project, which is working to increase the canopy of East Portland’s Jade District. Friends of Trees’ involvement includes tree-planting events and targeted community outreach toward getting more trees planted and volunteers engaged. A new feature of this partnership includes our first intern from APANO, whose focus has been supporting planting events through securing food donations from diverse neighborhood businesses and joining the planting teams.
Our partnership with Rosemary Anderson High School’s Portland Opportunity Industrialization Center (POIC) involves hands-on job training and leadership skill-building with high school students. Each season 10-14 POIC students train to be Crew Leaders and they participate in planning and leading Friends of Trees planting events; the students receive stipends as part of this program. Read more about this partnership in our December 2016 edition of Treemail.
Our CBO partnerships provide countless benefits, to both Friends of Trees and to our community. When youth are able to experience leadership positions, and when diverse communities have access to training that leads to internships and jobs with green organizations, preconceived barriers about green jobs and environmental engagement start to break down. Further, the youth interns can serve as role models for other youth volunteers, particularly for young people of color who can be inspired when someone who looks like them has a leadership role.
These partnerships also have an environmental justice aspect. Many of our partners and interns serve or live in under-canopied areas that experience greater impacts from climate change, such as heat islands. Involvement with community tree planting provides a way for participants to address some environmental inequities firsthand.
Equitable partnerships represent a core value of Friends of Trees and are critical to true community building, and we strive toward fostering this type of partnership in the work we do. We are thankful to the support of the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services and East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District for support that helps make these partnerships possible.
Pictured above: Urban Forestry Training Program participants from project partners POIC, APANO, Wisdom of the Elders, Verde, the Black Parent Initiative, and the Pathways to Farming program.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley joined Friends of Trees, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Verde, and Portland OIC on August 25 to make the I-205 Multi-Use Path greener. James Mayer’s story in The Oregonian describes Sen. Merkley’s impression of the three-year project to green the path, which is spearheaded by Friends of Trees, ODOT, and Metro.
Following Sen. Merkley’s tour of recent tree plantings along the Multi-Use Path—and his assistance in watering the new trees–more than 100 people attended the second annual Equity Bike Ride through the Lents neighborhood, which included the area that Sen. Merkley visited.
The Equity Bike Ride was organized by the Oregon Department of Transportation and co-sponsored by numerous groups, including Friends of Trees.
Friends of Trees was thrilled to hear Sen. Merkley voice his support for a national tree-planting program. Along with the Alliance for Community Trees and other groups, Friends of Trees has advocated for legislation to designate federal funding for planting trees and shrubs.
Learn more about the I-205 Multi-Use Path plantings on our Green Space Initiative web page.
Bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds are invited to the second annual Equity Bike Ride on Thursday, August 25. The ride begins at 6:00 pm at the southeast corner of Lents Park (at SE 92nd and Steele) and includes 6.5 miles in the Lents neighborhood.
According to Oregon Department of Transportation Public Policy & Community Affairs Manager Shelli Romero, who’s organizing the event, the ride will include brief presentations from the following groups:
Native American Youth and Family Center
The Skanner Foundation
Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon
Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center
Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization
Center for Diversity & the Environment
In addition, the ride will include part of the I-205 Multi-Use Path, which Friends of Trees, Metro, ODOT, East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, and a wide range of local businesses and community groups are enhancing by planting thousands of trees.
As part of the Equity Bike Ride, Friends of Trees Green Space Manager Logan Lauvray will share information about the planting project, called A New Forest Grows. You can learn more on our Green Space Initiative page.
“Bicycling is a great way to bring folks together to see our neighborhoods and communities from a new and different perspective, reduce impacts to our environment and build community,” notes Romero. “It’s also a great means for transportation and recreation and a great way to get some exercise!”
This year’s ride builds on last year’s Equity Bike Ride, which took place in the Montavilla neighborhood. The goal is to “educate, heighten awareness, and bring diverse communities together to learn about the geographic, racial, economic, and environmental equity efforts underway in our communities and specifically in East Portland,” said Romero.
Joining ODOT in hosting the Equity Bike Ride are the following sponsors: Audubon Society of Portland, Community Cycling Center, Friends of Trees, East Portland Action Plan, TriMet, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
Last year’s Equity Bike Ride drew nearly 70 bicyclists from many walks of life. Read more on our blog.