Baltimore – Community Greening Efforts

In 2011, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unveiled Baltimore’s Cities of Service Plan, titled “stepUP! Baltimore: Volunteers for Change.” Rawlings-Blake writes in the plan that “in each person and in every corner of our city, from the least to the most likely of places, we are the agents of change. We are the ones who give back, who help, who volunteer. Together, we can make our city better, safer and stronger.” By engaging and creating a dedicated, proactive volunteer network in the city, the plan hopes to address three top concerns in Baltimore: drug addiction, crime and urban blight. And when it comes to urban blight, the plan identifies urban forestry as a solution.[1]

TreeBaltimore planting event. Credit: TreeBaltimore

The stepUP! plan established Power in Dirt, an initiative designed to revitalize vacant lots in some of Baltimore’s most blighted areas. Approximately 14,000 vacant lots exist in the city, and Power in Dirt helps cut through much of the red tape associated with transforming those lots. It identifies lots available for greening, provides legal access to these spaces, ensures no development will occur on the land for at least five years, identifies a clear process for obtaining water for the lot, and supplies resources and information on ways the lots can be transformed.[2]

One of the program’s partners is the nonprofit Parks & People Foundation. “There are so many opportunities to green communities in Baltimore,” says Jackie Carrera, president and CEO of Parks & People. “We see firsthand, every day, that when neighbors come together around greenspaces, roll up their sleeves and work cooperatively, they’re not only restoring that piece of their natural environment, that small part of the urban forest, they’re also building relationships with one another and improving the social fabric of the city. These connections allow them to be better able to tackle some of the larger issues that they confront in their urban communities.”

Parks & People was founded by former-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in 1984 to build public-private partnerships to improve the city’s urban recreation and parks system. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it evolved into an organization focused on improving the quality of life in Baltimore’s neighborhoods through community forestry and youth programs.[3]

Through its community forestry efforts, Parks & People engages residents in projects involving tree planting, restoration of vacant lots and landscaping, teaching them skills that they can then use to take on other projects on their own. “All the stuff we do has been about building up the community’s capacity,” says Guy Hager, senior director of the Parks & People Foundation’s Great Parks, Clean Streams & Green Communities program. “It’s about getting the residents in those neighborhoods interested in this approach, and we think that by organizing themselves around something specific that’s doable — tree planting, vacant lot restoration — their capacity building expands to other areas. We see that happen all the time.” Over the last 20 years, the foundation has planted trees in 45 different inner-city neighborhoods.

Parks & People also works with the Baltimore Public School System to improve public school lots. Since 2006, Parks & People’s Schoolyard Greening initiative has removed approximately 20 acres of asphalt from inner-city schools to create new green space. With the help of the students, the asphalt has been replaced with gardens, trees and other greenery. The nonprofit is also using this approach for public housing locations. “We’re doing the same kind of thing on public housing sites in the city that have struggled to maintain trees and landscape over the last 25 years with youth teams recruited from public housing developments,” Hager says.

Newer nonprofit Baltimore Tree Trust, formed in 2009, is also hoping to focus on communities as the key to improving Baltimore’s urban forest. Inspired by a program in New York City called Trees for Public Health, which is targeting tree planting in six neighborhoods with low tree canopies and high childhood asthma rates, the trust is focused on specific neighborhoods that are most in need of new trees. “Working with neighborhoods is our approach,” says Jill Jonnes, founder of Baltimore Tree Trust, “and people have really embraced it.”

One of the neighborhoods the group identified as most in need of greening is McElderry Park. Under the McElderry Park Trees for Public Health Project, Baltimore Tree Trust — along with its partners, including TreeBaltimore, a mayoral tree planting initiative, and Baltimore City Forestry Board, a board of volunteers appointed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, alongside other community and neighborhood groups — hopes to plant 800 trees across 48 blocks of the neighborhood during the five-year project and is also training the residents to be tree stewards.

Parks & People’s Carrera relates that approaching community associations is often a good way to begin the conversation about getting neighborhoods involved in expanding and taking care of the urban forest. “Community associations as a vehicle to get involved are really important,” she says. Over the years, the foundation has fostered relationships with and among park “friends” groups through its Partnership for Parks program in cooperation with Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks.

With Baltimore’s ambitious canopy goals — 40 percent by 2037 — creating and maintaining these cooperative efforts between communities, organizations and the city will be critical to a healthy urban forest. “The agencies in city government right now are really in need of partnerships,” Carrera adds. “Communities need and do in many cases come together to partner with agencies to solve and address some of the agency’s goals and objectives because they’re shared goals and objectives.”


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[1] City of Baltimore. Baltimore’s Cities of Service Plan. stepUP! Baltimore: Volunteers for Change. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[2] City of Baltimore. Baltimore’s Cities of Service Plan. stepUP! Baltimore: Volunteers for Change. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[3] Parks & People Foundation. About Parks & People. Our History. (accessed Sept. 25, 2012).