The Greening of Detroit: Re-Creating a New “City of Trees”

Would you be shocked to know that Detroit was once known as the “City of Trees?” I was. I had no idea that the streets of the city were once lined with beautiful, elm trees. Nor did I know that 500,000 of those elm trees were destroyed when the Dutch Elm disease hit the city in the 60’s and 70’s. In response to all this loss, The Greening of Detroit was created. Three people set out to replace the elms that were lost and restore the much needed tree canopy in the city. In the past 27 years, The Greening of Detroit has planted around 90,000 tress. But tree planting is no longer their sole focus. With the Department of Forestry in Detroit dropping from 400 to 12 people, this non-profit has stepped up continuing to plant trees, but also expanding their scope to include other ventures that improve the city. 

Trish Hubbell:  We are a non-profit community. [Our] growth was really organic and natural. Our scope continues to grow as we see opportunity and needs along the way. We started a youth employment program to maintain the trees that we planted. Then, we started an adult workforce program to help with some of the tree maintenance, as well as turning vacant land into green spaces. We saw a need to teach people landscape technician skills and really focused on Detroiters who are underemployed or unemployed. This is becoming a huge focus for us, because as the city tries to pull itself out of bankruptcy and  istransforming itself into a post-industrial city, we’re looking for ways to put Detroiters back to work. I mean, there are still a lot of unemployed folks and the poverty line in Detroit is significant. So, we feel like the revitalization of our city is dependent on people having jobs. That’s a big focus area for us now in addition to planting trees.

We also expanded our forestry program into open space and green infrastructure. We do a lot of vacant lot treatments, where we go into neighborhoods and work with folks to decide what they want in their neighborhood. Sometimes it’s trees. sSmetimes it’s community gardens. Sometimes it’s a pocket park, and sometimes it’s a wildflower mix. Depending on who owns the land and what the situation is, we really try to work with the community members. We want to get people thinking about the empty space in their neighborhood in a positive way, so they can add value to their neighborhood. We have three large farm gardens that we maintain in the city. The largest being over at Eastern Market. It’s called the Detroit Market Garden. It’s a 2.5 acre farm garden. We grow about 9 months out of the year. One of our focus areas is around food justice, too, which is about giving Detroiters access to healthy food as well as the knowledge and the skills to grow their own food. So, we have an apprenticeship program where we hire between 5-12 Detroit residents who really want to learn all the aspects of farming.

 

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We support community residents that want to grow their own food. We have a “build-a-garden” program where people put in an application, receive raised beds, compost, transplants and then a free variety of classes where they can learn how to grow, how to garden, how to preserve, how to cook healthy, just all kinds of different classes. Through all of our programming, we have a lot of environmental stewardship and environmental education embedded into everything we do. The mission is transforming the city and really creating a healthier, greener Detroit. A city like Detroit that has been industrial for all these years, we’re really trying to make a paradigm shift to thinking about the city in a new way. So, it’s really exciting to be part of all that.

Trish Hubbell is the Director of Community and Public Relations at The Greening of Detroit. She has a lot of knowledge about the organization and the type of work that Greening is doing for the city. It was inspiring to listen to her talk about all the progress Greening has made and every endeavor the non-profit is in pursuit of. One thing that stuck out to me in our interview was Trish’s passion for the workforce program targeted toward adults and youths.   

Fitzgerald crew

Workforce Participants in the Fitzgerald Project

Trish: The workforce program started in 2010/2011. The idea was to take unemployed and underemployed Detroit residents and help lift them up over poverty. We wanted to train them in landscape technician skills, tree planting, tree removal, and pruning. We’ve expanded that to floral design and a few other things. After 8 weeks, they get certified in all kinds of different things, like CPR training and first aid, and OSHA. We have a big steering committee, so we’re placing these people in the program with a variety of different companies. I think it’s about 85% placement. We’re really taking this to a whole other level, and eventually we want the workforce to become a revenue stream for us. We hope to train 2,400 people in the next three years. That’s become a really elevated initiative that’s eventually going to move off onto its own. So, that’s exciting.

As long as we have the work to do, we’ll be able to employ folks full-time in the city. We are very excited about this, because we’re targeting people in the neighborhoods that they’re working in. You might be an unemployed resident with nothing to do, coming out of prison or rehab and your future isn’t looking that bright. Then, you end up getting trained and placed where you can see the fruits of your labor. It’s really empowering for folks. Our graduation ceremonies are so emotional, too. Sometimes it’s the first graduation that a person has ever been to or participated in. This might be the first time they’ve gotten a certificate for anything.  We have an eclectic mix, too. Sometimes we get people who want second careers, who are well-educated. We had a woman who was waiting to get into medical school. It’s cool because people from all walks of life come together and help each other. It’s a great way to break down barriers and build community.

This diversity in the program, also extends to including kids from the community. After all, if kids are given a chance to work and build their resume at a young age, it can lead to a much brighter future.

We hired kids way back in the beginning. They were always coming out to water trees.  It’s grown into a career development and college prep opportunity. They still do come out and water trees, but they also do rotations at the farms and at the vacant lots. Today, they really learn more aspects and get comprehensive training in everything we do. We have a lot of environmental education days.Lafayette Greens 2 So, they’ll go on field trips where they learn about forestry and agriculture. Then, there’s a big green career fair that we put on. Most of our seniors end up with partial or full scholarships. We really help get them scholarships, because a lot of the green careers are looking for minority students. A lot of [these students end up deciding to]  check out civil engineering or forestry or environmental science. It’s like a real eye-opening experience. This is how we cultivate environmental stewards for the next generation. These are kids start out to get a paycheck, but  it is during their time with us that they really start to become stewards for the earth. It’s pretty cool to watch that transition.

Trish admits that the hardest part about working for Greening is finding funding, because there are so many things that Greening would like to accomplish for the city and its community members. Despite this, there are a lot of rewarding aspects to being a part of the Greening of Detroit.

Trish: I think at the end of a planting or at the end of a farm event, just seeing how gratified people feel is the most rewarding. Seeing how exhilarated they are when they get finished planting a bunch of trees on the street and being able to look back to see how great that looks, or when you harvest a bunch of produce that’s just coming out of the garden, people love that. There’s something very healing about connecting with the earth. The more you do it, the more you realize how important it is. We use 4,000-6,000 volunteers a year and we’re actually struggling right now with having enough projects to keep all the volunteers happy because we keep getting more and more people who want to be part of this.

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To learn more about The Greening of Detroit and how you can donate to this amazing non-profit or volunteer, visit their website at http://www.greeningofdetroit.com/ 

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