Brighton West, program director of Friends of Trees, stands outside of his office on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Photo by Mark Washington.
By Jake Thomas
When Andrew Land moved to the Boise Neighborhood five years ago, one of the first things he noticed was the lack of trees. There was a large plant in the backyard of his sparsely-vegetated house, which was actually a weed that poisoned the soil around it preventing anything else from growing.
But over the years, he has witnessed a dramatic transformation in his part of town from the efforts of his neighbors and a non-profit that has big plans for Portland’s urban landscape.
Friends of Trees has been working for the last 20 years to create healthier, more attractive, and generally more neighborly neighborhoods by bringing residents together to plant trees. The group, which has planted 375,000 trees in the Portland metro area, is part of a national trend to add more vegetation to urban landscapes, and has even bigger plans to bring the benefits of trees to Stumptown.
Brighton West, program director for the non-profit, said that the mission of the non-profit is to help neighborhoods with the logistics of adding more trees to its streetscape. Usually an individual or group of people will approach Friends of Trees with the desire to green up their neighborhood, he added.
“We’re always trying to get the community involved in improving their own space,” said West.
Friends of Trees helps facilitate all-day planting sessions, which usually occur between November and March- the time West says “trees want to be planted.” After people gather early in the morning to slurp coffee and munch on breakfast donated by a local business, they divide into crews to plant Persian Ironwoods, maples, dogwoods, and other trees along the sidewalk while being supervised by a crew leader.
West said that neighbors get to know each other better from the activity, and take more pride in their community, which can help reduce crime rates. The trees also absorb storm water, and can mitigate pollution, he said.
As urban environments have grown dramatically and become more densely populated over the last century, people living in them have struggled to preserve elements of the natural world.
In recent decades, the issue has taken on increased salience as the environmental, economic, and health benefits of trees in urban environments have become increasingly clear.
In 1978, Congress established the National Urban Forestry Grant Program for this end, according to Nancy Stremple, the executive staff to the National Urban Community and Forest Advisory Council. The program saw its funding increase in 1990 when Congress gave it a farm bill appropriation.
“Trees are not just aesthetic,” said Stremple, who explained that there is almost no aspect of urban life that isn’t affected by the presence of trees.
She cites research that suggests that vegetation contributes to a calmer environment that can reduce violence and even help kids with attention deficit disorder. If placed correctly, they can help keep homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter, said Stremple.
They can also reduce sewer bills by absorbing storm water, while increasing home value.
The act of planting trees can also strengthen social ties in a neighborhood, as Boise Neighborhood resident Dennis Harris found out spring last year.
He remembers about 25 people fanning out throughout the neighborhood to plant trees. As the crews worked, people passing by pitched in to help.
“It was a great atmosphere,” said Harris, who added that people take more pride in their community.
People who utilize Friends of Trees still have to pay part of the cost, which varies is often somewhere between $25 and $75 for trees that would normally go for up to $200, said West.
West noted that his organization doesn’t do plantings in west Portland, since the area has no shortage of vegetation and there is more work to be done on the other side of the Willamette River.
“On the east side there’s a lot more need, and a lot more opportunity,” he said.
West explained that Friends of Trees is trying to do more on along interstate corridors, since they tend to be large sources of pollution.
“Trees are pretty good at absorbing pollution and what not, and we know that the areas along I-5 have a lot of pollution and a lot of asthma rates,” said West, who added that his organization is planning to do similar work near I-205 in outer east Portland.
Friends of Trees has also partnered with the city of Portland to help with its “Grey to Green” initiative, which aims to help better manage storm water runoff and enhance the city’s livability by planting 80,000 trees by 2013.
But despite interest from the city, West said that the appearance of neighborhoods hinges on the people who live in them.
“We need communities to step forward and say, ‘I’m going to do it,’” he said.