University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture

2018 Urban Forest Symposium

The 2018 Urban Forest Symposium brought together a diverse range of practitioners and thought leaders to discuss and share pertinent information regarding trees in our urban areas.

The day included speakers from around the region and beyond to discuss the value – and challenges – of partnership in this work. This year’s event was transformative, with inspirational speakers invigorating attendees to build partnership, think creatively, and collaborate equitably.

Keynote Nalini Nadkarni, a professor at the University of Utah and an influential ecologist, embraced the theme of the day and encouraged everyone to think outside the box to solve some of our most pressing environmental issues. Her speech perfectly encompassed the theme of the summit, “Collective Action: Partnerships for a Healthy Urban Forest.” She highlighted examples of her work that interweaved the ecological values of trees and forests with the values of society. Particularly with groups like artists, people who identify with spirituality and religion, and those involved with social justice. As a scientist she found it difficult to communicate her message to non-scientists. During her presentation, she stated various ways she used messaging to communicate the importance of trees and forests. Art and fashion was the first examples she talked about. She created a jacket with a plant pattern printed on it. When people asked where she got the jacket or commented on its appearance, she would take the opportunity to talk about the plant. By simply starting a conversation with someone can broaden their perspective on nature. Naliani also used the holy scriptures of world religions to understand how people have expressed what they think the values of trees are through spirituality. She used the example of the Old Testament, where she found 328 references to the word tree and forest. She did the same for other religious scriptures. This resulted in her giving speeches about trees and spirituality at different religious institutions throughout the United States. Her final example was how she connected trees with social justice and music. She spent time working with a local rapper in Washington to create a program that combined rap and ecology. Throughout her talk Nalini encouraged everyone to be innovative, curious and creative. In order to find the solutions, we need to work in partnership, think creatively, and open ourselves to new ideas and methods of doing things. “Trees are the universal loom that these different tapestries can be woven.” Go out there and make those connections.

Photograph by Camilo McConnell

Photograph by Camilo McConnell

In the afternoon, City Habitats’ partners participated in a panel convened by The Nature Conservancy and facilitated by Hannah Kett. This panel featured Sean Watts from the Seattle Parks Foundation, Jamie Stroble from King County 1-Million Trees, and Andrew Schiffer and Roseann Barnhill, both of whom are independent consultants and teachers in DIRT Corps. This panel represented three different sectors (.com, .gov, and .org) that are working on urban forestry throughout King County – a reflection of the diverse partners in the City Habitats coalition

While each of the panelists worked at different scales, it was evident that partnerships were key to the success of this work.

Photograph by Camilo McConnell

For Seattle Parks Foundation (SPF), it is about ensuring organizations working at the neighborhood scale have the resources needed to effectively implement their projects. The work starts by engaging communities that lack human and social capital. When Sean first started working at SPF, he spent time listening to these communities and learning about the problems they were experiencing. Most of SPF’s work is based in the Duwamish Valley, Lake City, and Rainier Beach. What’s important at that scale is helping a neighborhood identify open space issues and creating an inclusive environment where the community leads effort to add open space. Sean used the example of the SPF Little Brook Youth Corps that hires young people in the community to be stewards of the green spaces in their neighborhood. By hiring local youth and teaching them to be stewards in their community empowers them to be leaders and pursue conservation efforts as they grow older.

Duwamish Infrastructure Restoration Training (DIRT) Corps base their work in the community. DIRT Corps trains local Duwamish Valley residents to build and maintain green infrastructure. Usually this means building rain gardens, planting trees, and removing ivy at local parks. DIRT Corps is a special organization, everything they do is making themselves accessible to the community. This includes paying people to get trained, utilizing multiple languages for trainings and communication pieces, and making events available in different neighborhoods and at various days and times. By erasing the barriers that hinder engagement from working class and diverse communities, DIRT Corps can engage and involve more constituents than most organizations. For urban forestry, DIRT Corps hosts free tree giveaways. In the City of Burien, they gave away more than 120 trees to local residents. They work in conjunction with the individuals receiving trees to make sure they know how to maintain them. Even more salient, DIRT Corps follows up with them a year later to confirm whether they are still maintaining the tree.

King County 1 Million Trees initiative has similar but larger scale goals to broaden the regions tree canopy. Before 1-Million Trees, the movement to broaden tree canopy in the county was fragmented. King County saw the need to bring together the various tree institutions toward a unified vision and effort. Many of the County’s programs partner with local organizations to help them plant more trees. The initiative aims to mobilize the public to participate in tree planting and increase awareness about the value of trees. 1 Million Trees does this through community engagement, coordinating planting events, and being a convener of various public, civic and private sector partners in a region wide network in achieving their lofty 1 Million Trees goal.

From the beginning, the panel members were guided by how to appropriately engage and restore tree canopy in racially and economically diverse communities. One constant theme was trust. To properly involve community members, organizations need to build trust with them. One path is to learn and listen to the priorities of the community. Trees are a very low priority for certain residents. Their priorities are embedded in basic needs like housing, employment, security, food, etc. If you can accurately convey that trees can help with health and safety then people are more willing to listen. In other words, it is important to align the motivations and priorities of the community so that the work complements and benefits everybody.

The panel discussed strategies to encourage participation and reduce barriers in racially diverse working-class communities. This can include: compensating people for their time, providing childcare for events and trainings, using multiple languages, providing food, and scheduling events nearby and outside of work hours. Trees provide multiple health and well-being benefits to people. Unfortunately, those who need it the most are often left behind when it comes to tree canopy. Greater efforts by the environmental sector need to address the needs of the areas of our cities that have lower than average tree canopy. Just as important as acknowledging this disparity is being able to appropriately navigate and engage these communities.

It’s important to listen and respond to the community’s concern. By working in tandem with the community, you can make more effective change. Overall, the panel brought up important issues regarding equitable partnerships. As organizations look to expand their reach and be more inclusive, it is important to keep in mind the tools needed to build trust. There is no way perfect way to create partnership but knowing how other have found success can better dictate your own efforts. The City Habitats coalition is helping unify the efforts of building green spaces equitably throughout the Puget Sound. Seattle Parks Foundation, King County 1-Million Trees, DIRT Corps, and many more of our partners are leading the way in completing that mission.

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© Kevin Arnold