Community Engagement in Action: A conversation with Greening of Detroit

We recently caught up with the Greening of Detroit to learn how they successfully plant, map and care for thousands of trees each year. In their early days of operation, the Greening planted five to ten trees per event. Over the past two decades, these small planting events have turned into a well-organized operation involving thousands of volunteers, many more thousands of trees and a team of dedicated staff. There are many facets to the Greening’s success, but we wanted to share our five key takeaways.

A strong municipal partnership

The Greening has developed a successful partnership with Detroit’s Forestry Department giving the organization the requisite permits and some financial assistance to fulfill their mission. When they were founded in 1989, the City of Detroit was losing hundreds of thousands of trees to Dutch elm disease, urban expansion and attrition. At the same time, budget cuts forced the city to allocate most of their urban forestry budget towards the removal of hazardous trees. With little money leftover for plantings, they turned to the support of local organizations.

What started as an informal agreement was formalized five years ago when the Greening secured a blanket permit to plant trees along the public right of way. Since then, they’ve been working closely with the City to identify and plant approved species in areas most affected by removal. By engaging volunteers, the Greening can avoid the high labor costs associated with planting and caring for trees to multiply the impact of their investment in urban forestry.

Attention to the details of the volunteer experience

From its inception, the Greening has been committed to providing folks from all walks of life a meaningful volunteer experience. Over the years, they’ve developed relationships with groups – from large corporations to Girl Scout troops – who all share a commitment to giving back to the community.  They take a systematic approach to communicating key information in advance and scheduling the volunteering event to maximize productivity so a lot of the work is done behind the scenes before the day even begins.

Source: The Greening of Detroit

Source: The Greening of Detroit

A commitment to stewardship

The organization is committed to the long-term health of the trees they plant. To reduce tree mortality, the Greening of Detroit cares for trees for the first three years following planting. During the summer, they employ high school students into their youth workforce development program, Green Corps, to water tens of thousand of trees, and maintain city parks and greenways. The 1,600 students that have been involved in the program since inception have also participated in workshops sponsored by the organization on topics like financial literacy, conflict resolution and resume writing.

Source: The Greening of Detroit.

Green Corps getting ready for a day tending to more than 12,000 trees planting by the organization. Source: The Greening of Detroit

Engagement at the local level

Through their Community Planting program, the Greening engages block clubs, schools, faith based and other non-profit organizations in planting events. OpenTreeMap makes it easy for the Greening to showcase the ecosystem benefits a community will garner after a planting event.  An interested group, in conjunction with Greening, works with other local organizations to garner support for plantings among residents. They solicit guidance from residents insofar as where to plant the trees and residents serve as volunteers for the event itself. Following the planting event, the community takes on the responsibility for watering, weeding and mulching the tree for at least three years.

A commitment to data collection

By collecting data on all aspects of their programming, the Greening can improve the volunteer experience and measure their impact. After an event, each volunteer completes a survey, which helps Greening understand which events had the highest satisfaction rates and why. With this information, they can estimate the number of volunteers needed based on trees being planted and better cater the event to the group of volunteers. Additionally, the Greening requires their growers tag trees with genus and species information, making it easier for volunteers to accurately map trees in the field using OpenTreeMap’s mobile application.

The Greening of Detroit has mapped over 15,000 trees on their OpenTreeMap.

The Greening of Detroit has mapped over 15,000 trees on their OpenTreeMap.

The Greening of Detroit didn’t always map their trees. For years, they used a database to track the addresses of plantings. A few years back, the Greening was looking for ways to better engage the community in their planting efforts and to educate citizens on the ecosystem benefits of trees. After researching different mapping solutions, they decided on OpenTreeMap. It was the only platform they found designed specifically for community engagement, and it’s intuitive user interface made training volunteers easy.  They geocoded their address-based inventory and used OpenTreeMap’s bulk uploader tool to add past tree plantings to their map. The Greening of Detroit has over 15,000 trees which equate to more than $85,000 in ecosystem benefits on their map.  

Think we missed a key component of a successful volunteer program? Interested in starting your own OpenTreeMap? We’d love to hear from you!

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