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The Next Economy
‘Tree Equity’ as a Driver of Climate-Resilient Cities, Communities

In the face of rapidly evolving global challenges and opportunities, American Forests is leveraging 144 years of history, alongside cutting-edge science and (literally) groundbreaking ideas, to catalyze the urban forestry movement.

Ahead of its Deep Roots Sustainability Tour, coming up next week at SB'19 Detroit, we connected with President and CEO Jad Daley to discuss how the country’s oldest national forest conservation organization adapted to tackle climate change while transforming our cities into a network of carbon sinks, drivers of social equity, and generators of opportunities for disadvantaged neighborhoods.

As the US’s oldest national forest conservation organization, how have your projects and approach evolved over the years as new concepts such as urban forestry gain momentum?

Jad Daley: We are proud that the American Forests of today strongly echoes our 144-year history, while making important adaptations so we can meet new challenges. We think of this as “American Forests 2.0.”

We are still focused on integrating science into forestry so that the way we care for our forests achieves specific goals (e.g. around climate change, natural habitat, etc); we also continue to play a leading role in public policy, because this helps us create change at scale — like when we created the US Forest Service through legislation in 1905; and more recently, when we have led efforts to increase funding for the US Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program to the highest levels ever.

“What’s different” comes in two ways. First, we have taken on climate change and social equity — two pressing issues of today — as major focus areas for our work. Our forests hold the “swing vote” on climate change, and we feel a moral imperative to use forests to address the growing inequities in our society, including health and wealth.

Second, we are rapidly opening up new field offices because we need to have a greater presence in the cities and landscapes where we are leading unprecedented efforts to plant and restore forests for our mission goals — like creating “Tree Equity” across cities and increasing carbon capture in forests.

What differentiates American Forests from other forestry organizations?  

JD: For one thing, our history gives us immense credibility. Everything that we do draws from our 144 years of experience, and that means that every project and partnership we touch carries this unique “seal of approval.”

Second, we have unique scientific capacity among our peers. We work in concert with the leading scientists in the nation and world. This means that all of our projects and partnerships are designed with science for lasting outcomes, like replanting forests that can actually withstand climate change and planting forests that can deliver clean and reliable water supplies.

Third, we are working at the most comprehensive scale possible. Even just one Community ReLeaf tree planting project in a city is carefully tied to our larger strategies for delivering Tree Equity across that whole city and building a national movement, so every city can achieve Tree Equity. We are committed to the “big solution” in every case, and our partners can take pride in knowing that they are contributing to meeting our country’s greatest needs at scale, no matter how they partner with us.

How can already developed cities transform from hardscapes to greenscapes? How can urban forestry achieve a scale that could help fight global climate change? 

JD: If we want urban forests at a scale to deliver Tree Equity across neighborhoods and fight climate change, we have to think much more creatively and get some fire in our bellies.

First, we have to be ready to break some pavement. At the Global Climate Action Summit, American Forests led a project in San Francisco’s underserved Tenderloin neighborhood that involved ripping up holes in sidewalks so we and our partners could plant trees.

Second, we need to insist that urban forests are critical infrastructure for health and climate change — they are not just scenery. That means we must embrace as a basic human right that every neighborhood deserves to have the healing power of urban tree cover.

Third, we need to think and act very strategically to deliver urban forests as a climate change solution. Consider: Urban forests make up almost 20 percent of our forest carbon sink, and reduce residential energy use for heating and cooling by 7.2 percent nationally! But it won’t just take more trees to build on this powerful climate change solution. We have to use science and data to put the right trees in the right places — for example, to maximize cooling in buildings. We are working with leading scientists and planners, including the US Forest Service, to build new tools that will enable our organization and others to use this cutting-edge approach.

What role could urban forestry play in federal policy, or potential strategies such as the Green New Deal? 

JD: We were the first forest organization on the record saying, “Forests need to stand tall in any Green New Deal” via a piece in The Hill. We should know — American Forests led the effort to create the Civilian Conservation Corps in the first New Deal, and the CCC planted three billion trees while employing three million people in the process.

Forests offer the perfect fit for the Green New Deal vision. Our forests already capture 15 percent of our carbon emissions, and could double from current levels to capture 30 percent or more of our carbon emissions through actions like planting trees.

Further, forest-climate green jobs like planting trees and maintaining urban forests can’t be outsourced, and we are already taking steps to make sure that these green job opportunities benefit people in underserved communities who are struggling to get into the workforce — truly perfect for the Green New Deal vision.

We continue to push this perfect fit with Congress, and have helped leaders in Congress to draft new federal legislation to put urban forests and all forests squarely in the middle of the Green New Deal. These new federal bills will be introduced soon.

At SB'19 Detroit, you are hosting a Deep Roots Detroit Sustainability Tour, which will explore some of Detroit’s most innovative green space initiatives. What unique green space opportunities exist in Detroit compared to other cities?

JD: Detroit is a land-rich city, and that creates opportunity. By way of comparison to more densely populated cities, you could fit San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan inside the land area of Detroit. This is a pattern found in other Midwest cities, which generally tend to have more land area relative to population than many coastal cities.

That means that Detroit has space to pursue urban forest strategies that range from more street trees all the way to building vacant lot tree nurseries, and even reforesting larger blocks of hundreds of acres. This aligns well with a booming urban farming movement in Detroit, which is also feeding off this opportunity.

Volunteers work with Bank of America and American Forests to transform a nearly one-acre vacant lot into Detroit’s first outdoor education center in 2016. | Image credit: American Forests/YouTube

The potential in this is multi-layered. First, these new forests and farms can benefit local residents, creating healthier neighborhoods with new job opportunities and pathways for entrepreneurs.

Second, this is building the kind of city that can attract new residents, people who want something different from more densely settled cities that cannot create these kinds of outdoor experiences and natural living amenities, no matter what they do!

You mentioned that 'People are routinely shocked to learn that we have just one $30 million federal program dedicated to urban forests … compared with billions of dollars that we invest annually in caring for forests outside of cities.' If we had $3 billion to spend on urban forestry, how should we spend that money? How would you envision urban transformation on a national scale? And what value would we get in return?

JD: First, we need to invest in planting lots and lots more trees to create Tree Equity. This needs to include strong science support for “right tree, right place” urban forestry principles that address challenges like climate change and uplift underserved communities.

Second, we need dramatically better and more extensive tree care, so that we keep the trees we have healthy and resilient.

Third, we need to better protect existing urban forests through strong tree care and city ordinances.

Finally, we need to pair investment in urban forestry with investment in new workers (e.g. return-to-work programs).

There are already more than 30,000 open positions in urban forestry nationally, so we have a huge need to grow our urban forest workforce to the important work ahead. American Forests has launched a new Tree Equity: Career Pathways initiative to support exactly this kind of workforce development for underserved people to find careers in urban forestry, and we hope that policymakers will do their part!