Case Study


Changing the Heritage Narrative: Detroit, MI


Detroit Conservation Corps members, employed by The Greening of Detroit, refine their chainsaw technique.

The Greening of Detroit has overseen the planting and maintenance of more than 130,000 trees for the health, wealth, and resilience of Detroit neighborhoods.

Detroit, MI

Humid continental climate with warm summers and cold winters


Black: 82% White: 12% Hispanic: 5% Asian: 1%


In 1950, Detroit boasted that it had more trees per capita than any other industrialized city in the world; but only thirty years later, more than half a million of those trees were dead.

One of the most visible aspects of its struggle to recover from fifty years of economic recession was the dramatic effect of the decreased tree cover: the loss of shade and shelter, increased flooding and urban heat island effect, not to mention the beauty that tree-lined streets provide.

Since 1989, the grassroots organization The Greening of Detroit has been working to restore the city’s tree-lined vistas and shady greenspaces while simultaneously providing green jobs for residents. In doing so, it has forthrightly dedicated itself to the sustainable and equitable growth of healthy urban communities. And it shows: in these past 30 years, the organization has overseen the planting of over 131,000 trees.

Currently, Detroit has a 31% tree canopy cover, yet with 47% of its land still impervious surface, there is ample opportunity, and need, to continue these efforts. Vacant lots, which still make up more than 15% of land cover in the city, hold huge potential for revitalization as vibrant green spaces.

Workforce Development goes Hand in Hand with Tree Equity

The Greening of Detroit was founded to meet the needs of Detroit neighborhoods most affected by the economic downturn, with the goal of not only greening those areas, but also providing residents with the requisite skills to properly care for them while earning a living wage. As one of the few nonprofits willing to grapple with both environmental and socioeconomic concerns, The Greening has amplified its reforestation work through the development of a skilled local workforce composed of people who previously faced barriers to employment. Instead of simply planting trees, creating local nurseries, and tending area gardens, their work interweaves economic and environmental justice, ensuring that the benefits from the increasing quality of life, property values, and profits from greenspace maintenance stay in the communities where they are needed most.

Recently, The Greening has revamped its workforce development program into what is now the Detroit Conservation Corps (DCC). The eight-week long program is registered as a US Department of Labor pre-apprenticeship program. DCC is structured as a social enterprise model: participants receive a stipend, along with on-the-job training, workplace readiness skill development, safety coursework, and academic refreshers. “The ultimate goal is to retain 30% of DCC trainees after graduation to support fee-for-service projects. These projects help us sustain and control support that gets put back in the training of Detroiters in green jobs,” says Lionel Bradford, The Greening of Detroit’s president.

While the work hasn’t been easy, the organization has overseen some impressive successes. Since the program’s founding in 2010, The Greening has placed more than 50 program graduates into the City of Detroit’s General Services Department, with hundreds more placed in private sector utility forestry positions. Notably, 10% of Detroit Conservation Corps graduates have taken the entrepreneurial route, starting their own businesses and employing fellow DCC graduates.

Another key to success is The Greening’s 26-member employer advisory committee, which helps to continually inform the program’s structure and curriculum to meet program participant and stakeholder needs.

“Participants we engage have to have barriers to employment, and our employer partners understand that,” says Devon Buskin, workforce director at The Greening of Detroit. “We have a strict interview process for employer partners to make sure they are committed to the success of [DCC] graduates after they’ve been placed. During the program, we provide wraparound services to make sure participants can stay engaged 40 hours a week for the full eight weeks. Graduates are eligible to receive support from us for up to two years afterward.” Commitments like these ensure DCC members feel supported, and as a result, have led to high graduation rates and increased numbers of alumni attaining leadership roles in their organizations.

“If we want to have sustainable [urban forestry] projects in the community where people of color exist…we must engage them properly to make that happen,” added Bradford.

Understand Historical Failures

detroitsquaremileThese aerial photos capture the disparity in tree canopy coverage in one of Detroit’s lower-income zip codes, 48205 compared to a higher-income zip code, 48221.

Studies show that degree of tree canopy cover, especially on public properties like in rights-of-way and parks, often act as indicators of the racial makeup and income levels of a neighborhood. Redlined communities that have faced historic socioeconomic and racial segregation are more likely to have about half of the tree cover than historically higher income white communities. This leaves lower income communities of color vulnerable, and literally exposed, to all the consequences of a lack of urban forest: extreme heat, pollution, and flooding, to name a few.

The Greening partnered with the City of Detroit in 2014 to amplify their ongoing efforts to address this inequity via a city-wide reforestation effort. To ramp up this work, The Greening received funding to increase tree plantings from 1,000 to 5,000 trees annually. Through the combination of more planting efforts, tree giveaways, and planting in private yards, The Greening successfully reached an unprecedented 7,500 residents.

However, a full quarter of those residents declined to receive free trees. Why, after having been informed of the multiple health benefits and ecosystem services of having a tree on your property? Dr. Christine Carmichael of the University of Vermont worked with The Greening to investigate, and what she found holds the potential to transform how urban forestry nonprofits engage residents, design performance metrics, and advertise their efforts.

After conducting in-depth interviews with over 40 Detroit residents, Dr. Carmichael discovered that the reason so many of them declined free trees had more to do with their relationship to the entity responsible for planting and maintaining the trees: their city government.

Historically, both large scale tree removals and planting efforts were done without much regard for residents’ input, resulting in what Dr. Carmichael calls “heritage narrative,” – or, selective representations of the city’s history and character – that remain unaddressed in city planning efforts. For example, many longtime residents misinterpreted the city’s campaign, not long after the 1967 race rebellion, to clear dying elms ravaged by Dutch elm disease as an attempt to better surveil African American neighborhoods by helicopter.

“In this case, the [residents] felt that [after the race rebellion] the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees,” Carmichael says. “They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.”

In the past decade, Detroit seemed to be reliving a lot of its past trauma. After the city filed for bankruptcy, regular maintenance of much of the city’s infrastructure lapsed, leaving residents in the lurch. Tree maintenance was no different.

Meanwhile, infestations of emerald ash borer ravaged much of Detroit’s ash trees, leaving hazardous trees standing and exacerbating maintenance costs for declining trees. In 2014, when Dr. Carmichael’s study began, only about 10% of the 20,000 trees that had been marked dead or hazardous had been removed. The city had responded with a “10,000 Up, 10,000 Down” campaign to handle the backlog of trees that needed to come down to improve public safety, and replant the right tree species in the right place, however for many, that effort came too late to restore public trust. The Greening is now working to restore this trust by collaboratively building a new narrative.

Lessons Learned

To address its criticism of lackluster community engagement, The Greening has quadrupled its outreach staff from one to four people, all of whom live in Detroit, ramped up its workforce development program, and refined the way they evaluate and discuss the benefits of increased tree canopy. Involving residents in a more meaningful way at the beginning of the decision-making process is a pivotal strategy that can immediately change the dynamics of every step in community planning and implementation. Effective community engagement is not just about generating buy-in on already established urban plans, but distributing decision-making power across stakeholders that have to live with the consequences of these plans. Giving due attention to the means, and not just the end, is critical to addressing environmental injustice and building resilience.


Detroit Conservation Corps Offerings:

  • Certified Landscape Technician training
  • Michigan OSHA safety training
  • Tree Artisan Certification
  • Participants are awarded a stipend upon completion of the program

Community Engagement Takeaways:

  • Reflect resident priorities and concerns when sharing the benefits of improved tree canopy
  • Increase resident receptiveness to receiving trees via learning and adapting engagement to their heritage narratives
  • Expand workforce development programming and hiring to meet immediate needs of residents in response to economic downturns
Lessons Learned
  • Hiring local residents to be outreach staff helps foster more sustainable community engagement
  • Translating the value of a healthy urban forest to residents is easier when support is provided for ongoing maintenance (and job opportunities to facilitate that maintenance)
  • Independently run tree engagement initiatives have the potential to overcome limitations (such as capacity and broken community trust) that plagues many municipalities


Growing Tree Canopy through Environmental Justice Project
This case study is one of five developed as one component of the 3-year Growing Tree Canopy through Environmental Justice Project. The project was funded by a grant from the USDA Forest Service to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. This organization is an equal opportunity provider. Project partners include the District of Columbia Urban Forestry Division, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Prince George’s County Department of Environment, and American Forests.
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