Detroit – Introduction

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In the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Detroit was honored as a “city of trees.”[1] But in the mid-20th century, Detroit’s urban canopy suffered a tremendous blow that urban forest advocates have been struggling to overcome ever since. Elms once dominated the city, but after Dutch elm disease reached Detroit around 1950, the city began losing trees at an alarming rate. Between 1950 and 1980, about 500,000 trees succumbed to the disease, urban expansion or neglect.[2] Economic constraints prevented the city from replacing those trees, and Detroit’s urban forest languished in a state of limbo for decades. Adding insult to injury, a new invasive pest, emerald ash borer, arrived in Detroit in 2002 and has since decimated the city’s ash trees — many of which were planted to replace the lost elm trees.

Deep budget cuts have also taken a toll on the city’s forestry program, which is overseen by Detroit’s General Services Department. Associate Forester Todd Mistor says that during the city’s halcyon days in the 1960s and 70s, it employed about 400 individuals, but today, there are only 22. “Certainly our budget is constricted more and more every year,” he says. “Part of the result is that as people retire, we don’t fill those positions again.”

The lack of resources means the forestry team has to focus on “the worst of the worst,” he says. “We’re out looking for dead trees every day. We have thousands of standing dead ash and still a lot of dead elm.”

The ambitious efforts of nonprofit organizations, federal and state agencies and volunteers have helped fill the urban forestry gap created by Detroit’s thin municipal budgets. The recovery of Detroit’s urban forest, though, requires much more than just planting trees to replace those lost to disease and infestation. “Land cover, greenways, green infrastructure, stormwater management — all of that plays into the greening of Detroit,” says Kevin Sayers, urban and community forester for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A 2005 Urban Ecosystem Analysis conducted by American Forests reported a canopy of 31 percent in Detroit, but by the time a 2008 survey was completed, that number had dropped to 22.5 percent. While some of this difference may be the result of the differing types of tools and analysis being used, it is a stark example of the toll emerald ash borer has taken. The 2008 study did contain good news, though: There is a lot of available space for trees, which means the canopy could be much greater. “We have a lot of vacant land in the city,” says Dean Hay, director of green infrastructure for the nonprofit The Greening of Detroit.

The U.S. Forest Service is funding the first-ever inventory of the city’s street trees, which is being conducted by Ohio-based Davey Research Group, (DRG) a division of The Davey Tree Expert Company, which specializes in green infrastructure assessments. DRG’s foresters have inventoried about three-quarters of the city so far, but additional funding will need to be secured to complete the project, says Sayers. Michigan Department of Natural Resources is overseeing the project.

Detroit's New Center. Credit: Dig Downtown Detroit

Detroit’s New Center. Credit: Dig Downtown Detroit

The Forest Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), the city of Detroit and The Greening of Detroit plan to use the data to prioritize tree planting efforts, maximize the use of vegetation to absorb stormwater runoff and track disease and pest outbreaks. Finding a problem early could save many trees and a lot of money, Sayers notes.

The inventory has also had the added benefit of fostering cooperation among many of the different entities, both public and private, working on urban forest-related issues, Sayers adds. “It has helped in strengthening the partnerships between The Greening of Detroit, SEMCOG, Davey Trees and the city,” he says.

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[1] MGM Grand Detroit. Local Press Releases. MGM Grand Detroit, The Greening of Detroit and Local Community Leaders Break Ground for $1 Million Urban Greenhouse and Garden. (accessed Sept. 17, 2012).

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