Free foliage? Why so many Detroiters said no to free trees

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Getting placed in front of an apparent vacant house, a tree is planted in the front yard. Several residents hesitant about accepting new trees said it would be a burden maintaining them as well the abandoned properties.

Alice Haliburton's neighborhood, between 7 and 8 Mile, has a lot of dead trees in it.

An unsightly appeal for sure, but not an uncommon one in Detroit.

So when a nonprofit started planting trees in some of the vacant lots, and offered to plant new trees in front of several neighbors' yards as well, why did so many turn them down?

“They need to contact the communities, to get some input,” said Haliburton.

Even with the benefits that bark and foliage can gift to a community, from more green space to cleaner air, several individuals want more input in the decision making of what trees are planted and where they go. The disconnect that hindered the growth of green space in Detroit was found in a study published Jan. 8 in Society of Natural Resources.

“I had this theory that people would feel resistant to planting because they were left out of the decision making process,” said Christine Carmichael, who is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Vermont.

And she would be right.

In the study, Carmichael said residents were well aware of the environmental benefits that come with planting trees. That wasn't the issue. Instead, those that turned down the offer disagreed with the lack of say they had over what kinds of trees were being planted and who would be responsible for their maintenance.

Residents also stressed their safety concerns.

Haliburton said that the big trees that were being planted cause problems for adjacent sidewalks. She would have liked smaller ones. Carmichael recalls hearing people worry about branches falling on people or dead trees crashing through the roof of a house.

“The safety concerns were exacerbated by the feeling that the city wasn't concerned about their safety,” said Carmichael.

Because while this study focused on the rejection of free foliage, Carmichael said it's really looking at the interaction between communities and the outside groups and city governments that represent them.

That mistrust is rooted in history. Carmichael anticipated those that came from low socio-economic backgrounds with a history of poor treatment from outside nonprofits and local governments would be less interested in letting one of them come in and change their neighborhood.

The Motor City used to be a paradise for urban foliage. Known colloquially as “The City of Trees,” Detroit once had one of the highest tree to resident ratio in the country - one to three. But reduced funding has led to a lack of emphasis on increasing the city's canopies. As of 2014, more than 20,000 trees have been marked dead or hazardous.

In response to lack of emphasis, several nonprofits have taken up the task of planting more trees. The group The Greening of Detroit has planted more than 100,000 trees since its inception 30 years ago.

Carmichael's article is the second half of a two-part study that looked at data from between 2011 to 2014. During those years, 7,425 eligible Detroit residents, like Haliburton, were given the option to have trees planted near their property by the Greening of Detroit. But 1,800 people submitted “no-tree requests,” preferring to opt out of the free foliage. Carmichael found herself interested in explaining why a quarter of people wouldn't want trees planted near their property.

The nonprofit trying to plant trees emphasized more education of the environmental benefits, however that wasn't the problem, said Carmichael. What residents wanted was the chance to use that education to help inform them on which trees should be planted and where.

“They wanted that info to be part of the decision-making process, so they could accept trees to help them achieve their own goals,” Carmichael said. “What was lost on them (the nonprofit), was that with such a small group that has to focus on their volunteers, there wasn't a lot of dialogue from beginning to end.”

While the results of this study didn't come as a surprise to the The Greening of Detroit's president, Lionel Bradford said they'll adapt and learn from them.

“We have a model that works, and it involves community engagement,” Bradford said. “And we'll continue enhancing and touching base with people and folk in our neighborhoods.”

Bradford said there's a reason the “no-tree” option was available on the survey they administered years ago. He said their job is to educate people about the benefits of trees, but at the same time they don't want it to be a conversation about the environment, rather turning it into a social and economic discussion.

“Our goal is to pull residents through our efforts and that's through our volunteers,” Bradford said. “We want to pull them around a common goal of planting trees. There's social benefits there.”