GreenSkills Retrospective

Published Date:

April 10, 2022


Caro Scanlan

Margaret Carmalt, Don Williams and GreenSkills planting crew in rain gear in 2011
URI Reaches a Milestone: 10,000 Trees Planted
This spring marks a major milestone for URI—the planting of our ten-thousandth tree! Such an achievement is the result of an enormous amount of dedication, hard work, and support from our volunteers, partners, staff members, funders, and advocates. Here we review the journey to reach those 10,000 trees; the impact they have on the urban landscape; and the partnerships that make a program like this possible. Finally, we conclude with a look ahead.
The Journey to Reach 10,000 Trees
With the beginning of its Community Greenspace program in 1995, URI formalized its tree-planting efforts in New Haven. For the first 13 years, tree planting was carried out by Community Greenspace volunteers in locations chosen by the groups themselves. Some Greenspace groups, particularly those focused on caring for streetscapes, took to tree planting with gusto. Before the launch of the GreenSkills green jobs program in 2007, Greenspace volunteers had planted over 1,600 trees in New Haven. Each tree was watered and looked after by the volunteers and adjacent residents, and the survival rates for these trees were impressively high—higher than most contractor-planted trees in the city. In the fall of 2007, after over a decade of partnering closely with the New Haven Parks Department to implement the Greenspace program, URI initiated its GreenSkills pilot, planting trees on Saturdays with high school students.
The impetus for Tree Haven 10k, the 10,000-trees campaign, came in 2010. A few years earlier, Yale master’s student Suzy Oversvee had conducted an ecosystem services assessment of New Haven’s street-tree forest. Her study estimated that New Haven’s street trees were providing solid benefits to the city valued at over $4 million a year. These trees, however, were being cut down due to old age, pest and storm damage at higher rates than they were being planted. Subsequently, then-Mayor John DeStefano, convinced that street trees were hugely worthwhile for the city, introduced the Tree Haven 10k campaign and increased the capital budget for street-tree planting. This investment in tree planting opened the doors for the GreenSkills program to evolve into the 500+ trees-a-year program that it is now.
10,000 Trees: Part of the Urban Infrastructure
In the past few decades, we have come to understand street trees as pieces of critical infrastructure in our urban landscapes. When people think about infrastructure, they tend to envision roads, bridges, tunnels, and other elements of the built environment.
However, when you reflect on the sheer scale and significance of our urban-forestry efforts and impacts, looking at trees as infrastructure becomes more obvious. Each tree weighs roughly 300 pounds when it is planted. This means that these 1,500 tons of trees, transported from tree farms on the East Coast to our storage yard, and then onward to locations across New Haven, are literally a mighty fixture of our city’s landscape. Today, there are approximately 29,000 street trees growing in New Haven, meaning that URI has contributed a significant percentage of this total stock. Together, they provide vital functions to our city: trees protect against pollution and climate change—including by remediating environmental toxins in the air and soil, cooling our neighborhoods and reducing extreme heat and energy costs, alleviating flooding, preserving biodiversity, and even more.
Partnerships to Achieve This Milestone
For URI’s tree-planting program, champions and partners have always been critical. The program has been supported by three mayors’ administrations who have advocated for tree planting, funded our work, and granted us permission to operate in the public sphere; by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which has sponsored our efforts for nearly three decades; by 380+ Yale interns who have learned about urban-forestry operations, supervised our planting teams and volunteer workdays, and helped us improve our programs along the way; by 170+ adult crew members from EMERGE CT, Crossroads, and Strive who have gone through our job-skills training program and provided much of the people-power to plant the trees; by 200+ high school students from Common Ground, Sound School, and Solar Youth who have worked on our Saturday youth crews; and by tens of hundreds of Community Greenspace volunteers who have planted trees since 1995, well before the green-jobs program even got off the ground.
We would be remiss to not also salute the 3,100+ individual tree recipients who have “adopted” new trees over the years. Some tree adopters have had trees planted in honor of their newborn babies, others in memory of loved ones who have passed away, and still others to celebrate major life milestones, such as retirements and graduations. Most tree adopters are simply excited to contribute to the shade, clean air, wildlife habitat, and beauty of their block. Without the residents, businesses, community institutions, and tree advocates who have taken on the responsibility of caring for new trees, these newly planted trees could never have survived and flourished.
Looking Ahead
With 10,000 trees behind us, we now look toward the future of the next 10,000 trees. What are lessons we’ve learned from the past 30 years of urban forestry in New Haven that we can carry into the next phase of tree planting and care?
One—we know that trees are living and dying every day. By planting an average of 550 trees a year, we are surprisingly only keeping up with the removal rate of street trees in New Haven. If we are to expand the street-tree canopy of our city, it will simply not be enough to maintain our planting efforts. Instead, we will need to stretch our tree-planting capability over time as well as invest in stewardship of our existing trees through such activities as preventative pruning, invasive-vine removal, and enforcement of tree-protection measures.
Two—with the present and mounting pressures of climate change, we know that urban trees will not only be crucial to our adaptation and survival as a community, but many of the trees themselves will also suffer from warmer temperatures and everything that comes with them—storms, heat waves, drought, and pest pressures. Thus, we will need to be smart about our tree selections, choosing a diverse and climate-adapted species palate for a more resilient forest.
Three—we know that it’s not only important what trees we plant but where we plant them. Dismally, as is typical in most US cities, street trees are not distributed equally across New Haven. On average, neighborhoods with more poverty and fewer white residents have fewer trees. This means that the benefits that residents experience from trees are unfairly spread as well. Since its beginnings, URI has strived to plant more trees in neighborhoods with less tree cover. Yale senior Bay Hanson’s work on developing tree-planting prioritization maps will help URI continue to guide our outreach and investment into areas of the city where trees are needed most.
Finally—we know we’ll be able to build upon the existing foundation of trusted relationships and collaborations that have made the first 10,000 trees possible. We have always conducted our work driven by community interests and hand-in-hand with local residents. We eagerly look ahead to forging new partnerships with neighbors, crew members, advocates, researchers, and practitioners who will push the work forward and join us as we roll up our sleeves for many more seasons of tree planting to come.
Join us on Friday at 10:30 a.m. for a ceremonial tree planting and on Saturday at 5 p.m. for a musical celebration and awards ceremony.  Both events will take place in Quinnipiac River Park. This event is sponsored by the Greater New Haven Green Fund.  
Image description: Founding URI GreenSkills Manager, Margaret Carmalt, is second from the right. Former Planting Crew Member and current URI Board Member Donald Williams is on the far left (Fall 2011).