Detroit – A Nonprofit Force

The Greening of Detroit has become well-known in the city as one of the primary forces behind the urban forest restoration and green infrastructure push of recent years. The organization formed in 1989 when founder Elizabeth Gordon Sachs brought together key Detroit residents, business people and industry professionals to reforest the city. At the time, Detroit, like many U.S. cities, was losing an average of four trees for every one planted.[1]

The organization’s original mission was to plant trees. Hay says that the group has planted about 70,000 trees throughout the city since 1989. Over the years, though, The Greening of Detroit has expanded — thanks partly to such partnerships as with the Forest Service’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — to include educational programs, urban agriculture, open space reclamation, green infrastructure initiatives, green workforce development, advocacy and community building. The nonprofit often partners with federal, state and local agencies; corporations; and foundations to assist neighborhood groups, churches and schools with tree planting and green infrastructure projects.

Tree planting efforts in Detroit. Credit: Therese Poland/U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station

Tree planting efforts in Detroit. Credit: Therese Poland/U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station

The Greening of Detroit teamed up with police officers, local police precincts and community residents a few years ago on an innovative project to build community and trust by working together to plant trees in Detroit neighborhoods. The program, called Green Connections, resulted not only in greener, cooler neighborhoods, but also better relations between residents and their local patrol officers — participants observed that people in the neighborhood felt more comfortable walking past the precinct and talking with police officers after a Green Connections event.

Given Detroit’s economic situation, The Greening of Detroit has expanded into green jobs training, too. The program initially catered to youth, employing Detroit high school students to help water and maintain trees around the city. An adult workforce program was added to provide unemployed and under-employed Detroiters with training in green industry skills.

Detroit GreenWorks Solutions is taking advantage of The Greening of Detroit’s training background to provide formal training in agriculture, forestry, weatherization and other green jobs to disadvantaged residents. Led by Southwest Housing Solutions with training by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, The Greening of Detroit, Henry Ford Community College and the WARM Training Center, the three-year-old program began through a $4 million, two-year “Pathways Out of Poverty” grant from the U.S. Department of Labor as a way to help with the city’s unemployment issues.[2]

Green infrastructure projects also bring muchneeded aesthetic benefits to the city. In targeting vacant lots, for example, Greening of Detroit transforms a mark of urban blight into a green oasis. The organization replanted 1,370 vacant lots in 2009 with wildflowers, trees or shrubs,[3] and in 2011, it helped plant more than 1,400 community vegetable gardens throughout the city and provided environmental education instruction to more than 5,000 school-age students. Overall, The Greening of Detroit has helped install 77 schoolyard habitats, educated more than 30,000 youth and trained 1,900 educators to foster Detroit’s next generation of environmental stewards.

In terms of its tree planting projects, The Greening of Detroit works closely with the city’s General Services Department — and sometimes the Water and Sewerage and Recreation Departments — to determine where to place trees. “The city actually relies on us to do tree planting,” Hay says. “Whenever an area opens up or a neighborhood wants to do planting, we get involved.”

Grand Circus Park. Credit: Mike Russell

Grand Circus Park. Credit: Mike Russell

Rebecca Salminen Witt, The Greening of Detroit’s president, notes that once a community starts planting trees, residents often become interested in developing other projects with The Greening of Detroit, such as urban gardens. The tree plantings have helped build community by bringing people out of their homes to meet and interact with their neighbors, she says.

With so much to do to restore the city’s urban forest, the organization has found it helpful to prioritize its work, Hay adds. “Because there’s so much planting to do, our main focus in the forestry arena and our funding for trees goes toward neighborhood-based tree planting and then maintenance for three years afterwards,” he says.

The organization is focusing its planting efforts on places where re-establishing trees would bring the greatest benefits for the ecosystem as a whole, either in helping to reclaim brownfields, absorb stormwater runoff or filter pollution.

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[1] The Greening of Detroit. Who We Are. (accessed Sept. 2, 2012).

[2] Southwest Housing Solutions. Green Jobs Training Program Gets $858,000 in Federal Funds to Continue Its Exemplary Work. (accessed Sept. 11, 2012).

[3] Anstett, P. Greening of Detroit “We Like to Say We Plant Peas to Trees.” Detroit Free Press [Online] 2010. (accessed Sept. 17, 2012).