Microsoft and American Forests

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Microsoft is working to bring economic, social and environmental benefits to its datacenter communities. Through its partnership with American Forests, Microsoft targets two areas: environmental sustainability and workforce development. The partnership uses innovative approaches to plant trees in neighborhoods that need them most and to increase employment opportunities in urban forestry for people from under-resourced communities.

CREATING TREE EQUITY IN PHOENIX

 Low tree canopy coverage in under-resourced communities is all too common in cities across the United States, but it is particularly dangerous in Phoenix, which experiences 10- to 15-degree warmer nighttime temperatures than the surrounding Sonoran Desert. This extreme heat can have catastrophic impacts. In 2018, 182 people in Phoenix died due to extreme heat, the top weather-related cause of death in the country. Those who died were primarily in lower income communities and the elderly.

The best nature-based solution for addressing extreme heat on a metropolitan scale is to expand its tree canopy, adding shade in areas most in need. Phoenix has set a goal of doubling the city’s tree and shade canopy by 2030. Thanks to Microsoft’s support, plans are already underway with the City of Phoenix, the Arizona Sustainability Alliance and a variety of other local partners to assess climate vulnerability throughout the metropolitan area, create a tree equity score to guide planting plans, and do large-scale tree planting with a goal of developing an equitable distribution of trees across the Phoenix region that benefits all residents.

Microsoft is committed to community development where the company’s employees live and work. As Holly Beale, Program Manager of Datacenter Community Environmental Sustainability puts it, “Our objective is to help datacenter communities achieve their environmental goals and ambitions. As an integral and contributing member of the communities in which we operate, our vision is to inspire the adoption of innovative approaches to environmental responsibility and ignite action in protecting the natural and human environment.”

Putting down roots

The company’s employees are rolling up their sleeves, too. On a rare chilly February morning in Phoenix, 50 volunteers met up at Granada Elementary School in the Alhambra Elementary School District. The diverse group was made of up Microsoft datacenter employees and conference attendees from GreenBiz 20, an annual sustainability event. Native trees and foliage lined the perimeter of the school’s playground, ready to be planted. Granada Elementary School is in an area with high populations of immigrants and low-income families and also suffers from dramatically low tree canopy coverage, compared to wealthier regions of the city.

In just under three hours, the volunteers planted dozens of trees and understory. These trees are like green umbrellas for students, soaking up air pollution and carbon emissions, lowering temperatures on the playground, and providing an educational opportunity. Granada Elementary has a student sustainability group that will care for the trees and the school will host an upcoming Sustainability Fair where the community can learn more about the many benefits trees provide.

BUILDING BRIDGES TO EMPLOYMENT IN SAN ANTONIO

San Antonio, like many cities, is suffering from a shortage of well-trained people to take care of its trees. The problem is especially critical, given that the city desperately needs to preserve the precious tree canopy it has. In 2018, San Antonio learned that its tree canopy had shrunk dramatically over the previous 15 years, from covering 38 percent of the city’s land to just 23 percent. The decline in tree canopy, identified through spatial analysis, corresponded with increased development in the city and a serious 2017 tornado. It also meant a significant loss of the economic, health, and wellness benefits trees provide, prompting city officials to prioritize caring for the city’s trees and building a qualified, well-trained urban forestry workforce to continue that work.

American Forests, Microsoft, the City of San Antonio, Alamo Forest Partnership, and San Antonio Arborist Association have joined forces to try to tackle the shortage, leading to the creation of San Antonio Career Pathways. The pilot program, which will provide industry-focused tree care education and safety training, fills a major gap in urban forestry workforce training in San Antonio. Industry groups have shared that budgets for safety training have been slashed, leaving tree care companies with limited capacity to safely onboard and train their workers. The industry also faces a high rate of turnover. Tree trimming, pruning, and climbing are dangerous jobs, and according to the San Antonio Arborist Association, untrained workers have been seriously injured, and in rare cases have died due to not using the proper safety techniques. The city also has experienced a large prevalence of oak wilt, a fungus that kills through inhibiting water-conducting systems in oak trees. And as of now, there is limited public capacity to care for trees that aren’t on public parks and campuses, such as libraries.

To address local needs, San Antonio Career Pathways will train tree care workers through a three-part workshop and facilitate a community event where area residents can learn about the importance of tree maintenance and connect with trained professionals who could help them take care of long-term maintenance needs.

The key goals of the project are:

  • Develop a tree education and safety training course that equips participants for the International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist exam and addresses community needs
  • Ensure the tree education and safety course is accessible to those new to the field or those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend
  • Facilitate public tree education and stewardship informed by industry best practices

Thanks to Microsoft’s support of this innovative program, San Antonio residents who need jobs most will have an opportunity to care for the city’s green infrastructure and ensure that all residents will benefit from trees.