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Tree city: creating prosperity for all

Restoring urban forests to provide good jobs and economic opportunities for neighborhoods that need it most.

When we think of cities, forests aren’t the first thing that come to mind. But urban forests and surrounding ecosystems provide vital sources of support for our growing urban populations, including stormwater management, clean air and water, carbon storage, recreational areas, and jobs.

Nationwide, urban trees store more than 708 million tons of carbon — equivalent to mitigating carbon emissions from about 500 million automobiles annually. Shady streets help lower costs of summer air conditioning as well as winter heating. In an age of erratic weather, well-maintained urban forests reduce storm water runoff, buffer high winds, control erosion and minimize the impacts of drought. And parks and natural spaces provide an important part of the social and cultural fabric of any city as spaces to gather with friends and family.

However, urban forests and their associated benefits are typically not found in neighborhoods populated by low-income people and people of color. Marginalized, most low-income people and people of color spend their daily lives in environmentally deficient places, excluded from the routine opportunities that build environmental wealth for others. (Check out treesandhealth.org, a new online app developed by researchers at Portland State University to visualize how poverty levels compare to tree canopy cover.)

Along with our partners Verde and PolicyLink, Ecotrust is pleased to be a recipient of a U.S. Forest Service Urban and Community Forest Challenge Grant to assess the economic impact of investing in urban ecosystems for communities that need it most. The Forest Service’s National Urban and Community Forestry Challenge supports projects that enhance urban forest stewardship, create new employment opportunities, and build resilience in the face of a changing climate.

split image with man outside in stocking hat looking over a field and to the right, a man in a baseball cap planting a tree in a planting strop
Tony DeFalco (left) of Verde looks out over the future site of Cully Park. Landscaper Antonia Rojas (right) is one of several dozen people who have earned a living and built skills through Verde's social enterprises.

Verde’s mission is to serve communities by building environmental wealth through social enterprise, outreach, and advocacy. They’ve made great strides in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood, where 45 percent of households earn less than $40,000 a year, 60 percent of residents are people of color, and 18 percent are under the age of 18.

Along with its Living Cully partners (Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East, Hacienda Community Development Corporation, and the Native American Youth & Family Center), Verde uses sustainability as an anti-poverty strategy. By concentrating environmental investments at the neighborhood scale and braiding them with traditional community development resources, they are able to address multiple disparities. One example of this work is Let Us Build Cully Park!, a project that will transform a 25-acre former gravel pit and construction waste site into a new public park. The construction of the park will transform Cully from a park-deficient neighborhood to one with above-average park access for the Portland metropolitan region. And the park will provide vital environmental benefits to the community: The bioswales and natural planting areas alone are expected to treat 10 million gallons of stormwater per year.

Earlier this year, we worked with Verde to release a study that showed how their outreach-advocacy and social enterprise capacities provide economic and social benefits for local residents in the creation of Cully Park.

Social enterprise has allowed Verde to set aggressive economic development standards for the project: 50% target business contracting for design; 50% target business contracting for construction; and 20% of construction wages paid to women, people of color, or local residents. Outreach involved a total of 116 youth and 170 adults from the Cully Neighborhood in the park’s visioning, planning, and design.

To date, there have been relatively few studies that document the potential job creation and other benefits of urban green infrastructure for low-income and communities of color. But Cully Park is just one example of how rebuilding green infrastructure can become a neighborhood-wide anti-poverty strategy, addressing unemployment, displacement, health, and access to services. We are excited to build on the success of the Cully Park model and partner with PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity, to create more opportunities for urban ecosystem investment around the country.

PolicyLink connects the work of people on the ground to the creation of sustainable communities of opportunity that allow everyone to participate and prosper. Such communities offer access to quality jobs, affordable housing, good schools, transportation, and the benefits of healthy food and physical activity. PolicyLink works with local leaders to drive equity-focused local, state, and federal policy to create conditions that address the disparities faced by low-income communities and communities of color.

The PolicyLink All-In Cities initiative builds on the work of the National Equity Atlas, helping cities and regions track their changing demographics to understand the investments needed to ensure that growing populations of people of color have strong education, employment, and business formation success. PolicyLink’s role in the Urban and Community Forest Challenge grant will be to identify the equity practices and policies that can ensure inclusion of disadvantaged workers and firms in urban forestry jobs and contracting opportunities.

Stay tuned: Our Urban and Community Forest challenge grant with Verde and Policy Link runs through May. We look forward to sharing stories about the potential for urban forest restoration to provide good jobs and economic opportunities for neighborhoods that need it most.