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Green City

April 22, 2009

(A regular contributor to PhilanTopic, Kathryn Pyle is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. She recently reviewed Paul Collier's new book, War, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places for PND and filed two on-the-ground reports -- here and here -- from El Salvador about that post-conflict country's recent presidential election.)

Casey Trees_ Capitol trees Slated to talk about movies at the kick-off event of Washington’s "Film Fest DC" some years ago, Lina Wertmuller, the Italian filmmaker, surprised the audience by first exclaiming "You live in a garden!" and going on to regale those in attendance about the trees and parks and flowers she'd seen since arriving for the festival. Wertmuller is not the only visitor captivated by the 2,000-plus acres of urban park and the variety of planted trees -- 3,000 around the Capitol building and the Library of Congress alone. And then there are the flowering cherry trees -- 3,750 trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial alone -- a sight that brings 700,000 visitors to Washington each April.

To live in Washington, D.C., is indeed to live in a garden: Golden Gate Park in San Francisco may be the largest urban park in the United States, but it's a rectangle of green; in D.C. the park is spread throughout the city, an everywhere presence of shade and blossoms and birdsong. The largest section, Rock Creek Park, meanders as the stream does, south from the city limit at Candy Cane City in Maryland down to Thompson Boat Center, where the creek empties into the Potomac River near Kennedy Center. Created in 1890, it is the "oldest natural urban park" under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, a place for people to run, bike, picnic, ride horses, and walk -- and home to two hundred deer, red and gray fox, coyotes, beaver, and the largest density of raccoons in the country.

The street trees -- more than 100,000 of them -- are a special feature of the city. And later this week, when the city gets its "first annual tree report card," we may learn that the urban canopy comprises even more trees. For now, think of Washington as a city of 560,000 people and 100,000 trees.

It wasn't always like this.

Although trees were a feature of the new capital planned by Washington in the 1790s, by the end of John Adams' term in office they were being cut down for timber and firewood. The fate of the city's trees ebbed and flowed until after the Civil War, when the governor of the District of Columbia made a decisive investment, planting 60,000 trees as part of a post-Civil War infrastructure program. The city's new streets were lined with a variety of species, often paired -- for instance, lindens on Massachusetts Avenue, elms on South Carolina.

Tree planting had become popular in cities and towns across the country by that time, as people noticed that the country's old-growth trees were mostly gone, cut down for farming and settlements. Elms were the favorite urban tree because they grew fast, provided pleasant dappled shade, and created spectacular archways over a street. Sadly, this devotion to monoculture resulted in a catastrophic loss of elms when Dutch Elm Disease arrived on these shores in the 1930s. At that time, there were nearly 40,000 elms in the District; only 10,000 remain.

Neglect also took a toll. A 1997 study by the citizens' conservation organization American Forests found that two-thirds of Washington's trees -- some 5,000 a year -- had died over the previous thirty-year period, as middle-class residents left the city and tax revenues declined, resulting in a lack of personnel and infrastructure to care for the urban forest.

That news spurred Washington philanthropist Betty Brown Casey to action. The widow of Eugene B. Casey, who made a fortune in real estate and whose legacy includes the foundation named for him, Mrs. Casey made a gift of $50 million to the Garden Club of America to establish and endow Casey Trees in 2001. The group's mission was to "restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the Nation's Capital," and its first activity was an inventory of the city's trees. Five hundred volunteers gathered data, and 100,000 street trees were counted; today, visitors to Casey Trees' digital map can find and identify the trees on their block or anywhere else in the city. The map is updated on an ongoing basis and combined with stewardship education.

The inventory served as the blueprint for the new organization, and soon after Casey Trees launched its tree planting program. According to Casey Trees director Mark Buscaino, "When we started, we were the technical experts; we looked at the tree inventory and knew what and where we needed to be planting. We organized fifty events a year. We planted trees large enough to survive, not just little sticks. But it wasn't working: the trees weren't being cared for and there were no add-on benefits. We realized the community needed to be involved. So we turned the model on its head."

Tree planting is still the core of Casey Trees but only at the request of the community, and now it's the hub of activities that engage residents. "Our real mission," continued Busciano, "is to connect people to trees." Individuals and groups come to Casey Trees, proposing a planting site for at least ten trees and agreeing to a two-year maintenance plan with residents taking responsibility for watering and other care. Casey Trees provides the tools and trees and assigns a "citizen forester" from Casey Trees’ training program (there are nearly seven hundred) to provide technical advice and help the community organize the volunteer tree planters. Dozens of people turn out for the fall or spring tree plantings (followed by lunch, on the community). To date, 5,500 trees have been planted, in neighborhoods around the city.

Elm tree Even the elms have made a comeback, thanks to new disease-resistant varieties and an aggressive management program by the National Park Service and city government that destroys trees showing signs of disease or weakness. Casey Trees has planted more than 1,000 new ones, all Princeton Elm.

Off planting-season, Casey Trees hires high school students from the District as summer Urban Forest Interns. "The endowment has enabled us to operate, to pay for the trees, to really make the core program effective without having to live grant to grant, and we're grateful for that," said Busciano. "But the intern program illustrates how it also enables us to reflect on what we're about, focus on quality and experiment with new programs."

The intern program is small, just ten per summer since it began in 2005; but most interns are African-American, which is significant in a field that traditionally has not attracted minorities. And the experience gives them real skills and a concentrated learning experience. The youths are mentored by Casey Trees staff and help maintain the planted trees and educate residents on re-greening, while learning about green jobs and technical aspects of tree care. Some "graduates" are now studying landscape architecture and environmental science; last fall, Casey Trees sent one of the summer interns to a one week hands-on camp organized by the Natural Resources Careers Conference. (Click here to listen to interns talk about their experiences.) And this year, Casey Trees is offering two scholarships in an open competition announced on their Web site.

Tomorrow -- Anacostia: Back to the Garden

-- Kathryn Pyle


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