Power of A: Green Thumb
American Forests turn cities green by building up the tree canopy.
It’s a concrete jungle out there—at least if you live or work in a major metropolitan area. But U.S. cities are increasingly turning green, with the help of American Forests’ Community ReLeaf Program.
“The core of what we’re trying to do is increase tree canopy. There’s a lot of scientific research out there that shows the whole range of benefits from that,” says Ian Leahy, the organization’s director of urban forest programs.
Leahy explains that urban forests can improve the quality of life in a city by providing ecological benefits, including reducing air and water pollution, preventing oversaturation of storm drainage systems, and mitigating climate change.
But introducing nature into a city can also have other benefits, such as increasing students’ test scores and reducing crime and domestic violence. “We’re just trying to build these green cities as green as we can possibly make them,” Leahy says.
After choosing cities based on their need and potential funding and partnership opportunities, American Forests follows three steps to put the tree-planting plan into action:
Science. American Forests obtains or creates a tree canopy analysis to determine where and how many trees to plant in the city.
Restoration. To kick off the project, the association hosts an event to enlist staff, volunteers, and the community to build a particular green area.
Outreach. Community engagement brings in workers and larger investments to support the project and, in some cases, to extend the project to a 10- to 20-year commitment.
The program, a Gold Award winner in the 2015 ASAE Power of A Awards competition, has been implemented in 16 cities. It stemmed from an American Forests program that provided tree assessments to cities to encourage them to address the issue.
“We’d hand off these reports to cities and say, ‘OK, good luck with it.’ And there was no follow-up really in place,” Leahy says. The Community ReLeaf program ensures that the data becomes more than “just a report that sits on the shelf.”
As the program expands, American Forests plans to invest further in some metro areas to make longer-term improvements in the tree canopy and to educate local businesses about how and why their decision-making needs to consider the city’s urban forests.