After 25 years of growth in the city, the Greening of Detroit comes of age

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This story was originally published in July 2014.


It isn't easy being a tree in the city.

The average lifespan of an urban tree is just 20 percent what it would be in the wild. For every tree that's planted in Detroit, four are lost. A number of stressors contribute to this high mortality rate: compacted soil, nutrient deficiencies, and greater susceptibility to pests. Improper pruning doesn't help matters, and neither do the wounds inflicted by people and machines.

But we need trees in the city, and for more reasons than the obvious ones. Sure, we need them to take our carbon dioxide and give us back oxygen, to provide cooling shade, and to play their part in complex urban ecosystems. Yet a growing body of research suggests that we need them for much more than that. Trees absorb stormwater, helping reduce runoff. They clean the soil. They promote economic vitality, raising property values and subtly encouraging shoppers to spend more time spending money. They reduce our stress levels and might even help reduce violent crime. (Readers ready to dig into some of the research supporting these claims -- and a host of others related to the benefits of trees -- will appreciate this handy resource list.)

None of this is news to the folks at the Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit working to grow a greener, leafier city since 1989. And while the Greening is well-known for its work promoting, planting, and caring for trees, it remains what Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of the Greening of Detroit, calls "an organization on the move" and is continually finding new ways to support a more sustainable Detroit.

Rebecca Salminen Witt
Over its 25-year history, the Greening has expanded its canopy to cover work in areas like youth and adult education, workforce development, vacant lot maintenance, dendroremediation, ecological restoration, and urban agriculture.

Green infrastructure, blight elimination, green jobs, urban ag, what to do about all those vacant lots -- these terms and phrases come up contiuously in conversations about the present and future of Detroit. But this language is nothing new. In fact, it's language the Greening has been using for a quarter century.

The point is not lost on Salminen Witt.

"We have 25 years of experience and of trial and error in these areas," she says while standing at the Greening of Detroit Park between Jefferson and Larned, just east of downtown. "We really do feel that we've been practicing for this moment in Detroit. It's very exciting."

So, as the Greening celebrates its silver anniversary we thought we'd explore how its work has evolved by taking a closer look at a few areas in which the organization has made a significant impact (We'd never be able to cover them all!).

Let's start (where else?) with the planting of trees.

The (Re)Greening of Detroit

When Elizabeth Gordon Sachs founded the Greening in 1989, she was a Minnesota transplant who was surprised to see that Detroit, once known as a "City of Trees," in fact had so few of them. By the time she got here, Dutch elm disease had claimed more than 500,000 trees throughout the city. The introduction of the emerald ash borer a few years after her arrival would claim many thousands more.

To further the cause of urban forestry, Gordon Sachs founded the Greening as a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the city raise tree planting funds. For its first project, a 1990 planting along the median of Larned from I-375 to Mt. Elliott, the Greening raised $100,000. Most of those trees, now grown tall, stand as a testament to the difference 25 years of growth and maintenance can make in an urban landscape.

Greening's first plantings along Larned.
As the city's economic situation deteriorated and its forestry department dwindled, the Greening's work expanded to include the planting of trees in addition to fundraising, beginning the longstanding "community planting" work for which it's well-known. From the '90s until today, the Greening has worked with neighborhoods all over Detroit to identify areas in need of trees, determine which trees would be the most appropriate, and marshall a corps of funders, neighbors, and volunteers to get them planted.

"The city of Detroit has lots of tiny little microclimates," says Salminen Witt while pointing to the variety of trees planted in the Greening Park. "So a tree that does really well on the east side isn't going to do as well in southwest Detroit. After 25 years of work in the city, we've become experts at knowing and recognizing those microclimates and understanding what should be planted where."

In 2013, the Greening organized the planting of 3,189 trees across 53 sites in neighborhoods as diverse as Grandmont/Rosedale, Berry Sub, Southfield Plymouth East, Minock Park, and Midtown.

Over 25 years, clear across the city, the Greening has planted 82,000. And every planting is more than just a planting; it's also an opportunity to bring a neighborhood together around a common cause. 

Deacon Charles Thomas, president of the Belmont Community Council, helped organize a planting in his northwest Detroit neighborhood in 2012. His motivation was to promote "a new vision" for Belmont and to "help stabilize the neighborhood and to show reinvestment in order to promote a better quality of living." But he's struck by the community connectedness the experience fostered.

"Planting and caring for the trees galvanized folks on the block to come together," says Thomas. "It's been such a great opportunity for engagement."

On to urban agriculture

"10 or 15 years ago," says Salminen Witt, "it became really clear to us that food security was an ongoing issue in the city. We were folks who knew how to grow things, so neighborhoods would come to us and ask if we could help them garden. At the same time, vacant space was becoming more prevalent in the city. So we started thinking, 'OK, there's a food security issue, we know how to grow things, and there's this new resource in our vacant land -- we can put all these things together into a gardening movement.'"

So began the work that would lead, garden by garden, to the Garden Resource Program (GRP), a Greening initiative that eventually came to support some 1,300 individual gardens throughout the city. The work that the Greening started with the GRP has since spun off into its own independent organization, Keep Growing Detroit, but the Greening remains connected to urban agriculture in Detroit in meaningful ways.

Detroit Market Garden's coordinator Marcellus Wheeler and his wife Bianca
Since 2012, it has managed the Detroit Market Garden, a 2.5-acre farm adjacent to Eastern Market and the Dequindre Cut that was developed as a "demonstration of what can be done with vacant property in the city of Detroit, and how it can add to the economic value of a district," according to Tepfirah Rushdan, the Greening's director of urban agriculture.

The Market Garden, which contains four solar passive hoop houses in which herbs and vegetables are grown year-round, distributes food to area institutions and restaurants, as well as the Gleaners Food Bank and local farmers markets. It is also used to provide educational opportunities to folks who want to make a living growing food in the city.

More recently, the Greening has assumed management of Lafayette Greens, the highly visible, half-acre demonstration garden flourishing in the heart of the central business district. Compuware, which founded Lafayette Greens in 2011 on the site of the demolished Lafayette Building, gifted the garden to the Greening in April.      

Putting Detroiters to work

If Detroit is truly going to become the green city that so many envision -- its vacant lots converted into forests, farms, and native meadows; its grassy medians turned into productive bioswales -- there is much work to be done transforming and tending the living landscape.

The Greening began to anticipate the need for a green workforce about five years ago, as the conversation about the latent possibilities of the landscape began to intensify.

"But that conversation hadn't yet reached the subject of who was going to do the work -- the landscape maintenance, tree care, and urban ag work," says Salminen Witt. "We recognized that we had the opportunity to train unemployed or underemployed Detroiters who are perfectly capable of doing this work. We want to make sure that when the economic opportunities resulting from this new green infrastructure work start to come, those opportunities will go to Detroiters."

To date, 230 Detroiters have been trained through the Greening's workforce development program. And these people are not just waiting for the work of the future. More than 75 percent of them are placed in jobs after they graduate. They work for landscaping companies, the garden section of Home Depot and Lowe's stores, tree care companies, and DTE Energy (where they perform line clearing work). Some are hired by the Greening itself.

For many of these people, the Greening's training program represents an opportunity to start over. Susan Thompson joined the program four years ago after learning about it from a friend shortly after she left rehab for substance abuse. She says that it has changed the course of her life.

Her ongoing work tending the city's greenways not only gives her a paycheck and the satisfaction of a job well done ("I love it because when you go into the parks, they look shabby, but when you come out, you can see the beauty in them."), it has also provided her the opportunity to learn valuable skills and become part of a supportive network.

Explaining that the program has given her a second chance at the life she "threw away in the streets," Susan smiles widely and says something that hints at the expansive, transformative impact the Greening of Detroit continues to have in this city, 25 years on and counting: "I'm one of the human trees they're growing."

Matthew Piper writes about art, culture, and sustainability in Detroit. His day job is at the Green Garage, where, among other things, he helps grow, support, and connect a diverse community of small businesses and nonprofits working toward a more sustainable future.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
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