How two simple images, juxtaposed side by side, started a local revolution in the heart of Washington, D.C.

By Ian Leahy

Aerial images of DC from 1973 and 1997
How two simple images, juxtaposed side by side, started a revolution in the heart of Washington, D.C.

When American Forests named Washington, D.C. one of the 10 Best Cities for Urban Forests in 2013, residents were quick to tweet their pride. With the famous National Mall supporting 17,000 trees; the nation’s first urban park, Rock Creek Park; and more than 7,000 acres of parkland, D.C. earned its place on the list without breaking a sweat.

Before the abstract benefits of urban forests were well understood, we knew about their ability to filter trash and toxins from stormwater on its way to waterways. Such knowledge has led to the increase of green infrastructure like this bioswale in D.C., replacing storm drains which led directly into the sewer system.
Before the abstract benefits of urban forests were well understood, we knew about their ability to filter trash and toxins from stormwater on its way to waterways. Such knowledge has led to the increase of green infrastructure like this bioswale in D.C., replacing storm drains which led directly into the sewer system. Photo credit: Dan Reed

But it wasn’t always this way. The District of Columbia of the 1990s was suffering from a quarter century of profound disinvestment, following the national trend of shifting economies to suburban locales. In a city also reeling from a crack epidemic and an annual murder rate nearly five times what it is today, the tree canopy had fallen by the wayside as a priority.

The revolution that would turn the urban forest’s fate around began when two images made the front page of The Washington Post’s Metro section in 1999. One was a satellite image of Washington, D.C.’s tree canopy in 1973, the other in 1997. Both were from a study American Forests had conducted of the District’s tree canopy. The story needed no words: From the perspective of the 30-meter resolution available at the time, one image was predominantly green, the other looked like a tornado had ripped through a majority of the nation’s capital.

That story in the Post sparked a citywide conversation about what priorities residents value and the type of city they felt the nation’s capital should be.

People skating in a park
Washington Parks & People was one group at the forefront of urban forest revitalization in the nation’s capital. One of their early accomplishments was the revitalization of Meridian Hill Park. Photo credit: ThisIsBossi/Flickr

The timing was right. In the years leading up to the Post article, a body of intriguing research had begun to emerge about the relationship between people and vegetation. Long thought to be extraneous window dressing for communities that could afford to care about such niceties, the role of nature in cities began to come into greater focus. It was already well known that vegetation is critical to keeping all the trash and toxins swept up in rain and snow melt from pouring into our waterways; it was also well established how critical vegetation is to catching particulate matter and absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise enter our lungs and atmosphere. But in the late 90s, a new realm of more abstract understanding was coming into focus. All else being equal, urban landscapes with trees had been shown to significantly reduce crime and domestic violence rates. Hospital patients with a view of nature from their rooms recovered 48 percent faster after surgery. Obesity rates, energy bills and symptoms of attention deficit disorder have proven to be lower. Property values and student grades, when interacting with nature on a daily basis, have proven to be higher.

Urban forestry professionals can regurgitate such findings in their sleep today — there’s not one of us who hasn’t had to pull a handy stat out at a community meeting or policy hearing — but at the time, these concepts were groundbreaking. They revealed a deep connection between nature, society and psychology that few had realized existed. Suddenly, urban forests were part of the conversation about substantive socioeconomic matters and trees became more than just pretty window dressing.


There were, of course, already organizations that had been working for years in Washington, D.C., intuitively using nature as a tool for empowering the most disenfranchised residents. Washington Parks and People, for example, took it upon themselves when no one else would — not even the federal government who owned the land — to engage the local community in reclaiming and restoring parks such as the Italian-inspired Meridian Hill Park in Northwest D.C. and Marvin Gaye Park, named for the local music legend, in the Northeast quadrant. Earth Conservation Corps almost single-handedly brought wild bald eagles back to the nation’s capital in the 1990s, where they thrive today, yet tragically lost several of their members to street violence in the process.

However, the conversation that emerged from American Forests’ analysis of the tree canopy around the turn of the 21st century led to two monumental breakthroughs on a scale that would redefine urban forestry for Washington, D.C. The first was a single philanthropist, Betty Brown Casey. She took up the cause as her own and, with a $50 million endowment, launched Casey Trees, a local nonprofit with a fully operational nursery whose sole purpose has been to stabilize, grow and protect the city’s tree canopy. They have worked since 2002 with a staff of arborists and dedicated volunteers, planting trees and raising the profile of tree issues in the District.

Community members join Casey Trees for tree plantings at Noyes Elemetary School in 2010 and on Massachussetts Avenue in 2014.
Community members join Casey Trees for tree plantings at Noyes Elemetary School in 2010 and on Massachussetts Avenue in 2014. Photo credit: Casey Trees

The other breakthrough came from the city itself. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams turned a small landscaping division that had about a one million dollar budget tucked into a corner of the Department of Public Works into the $8-million-a-year Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) housed in the District Department of Transportation, where its staff could proactively manage street trees and respond to emergencies in conjunction with other transportation matters. Today, UFA has an even more robust budget and a staff of forestry professionals with various master’s degrees and sometimes even Ph.D.’s managing the city’s tree canopy. As a result, the massive backlog of dangerous dead limbs and street trees has been eliminated, about 8,000 new trees are being planted every year, they have expanded to include management of park trees and, most importantly, the District’s tree canopy is growing again, up to about 37 percent on its way to a citywide goal of 40 percent by 2032.

It takes years for results like this to play out, both politically and ecologically, but sparking this type of local momentum is exactly the goal American Forests seeks to achieve in the cities where we make strategic financial and technical investments today. Our flagship urban program, Community ReLeaf, is now in 11 cities nationwide and, with support from both the U.S. Forest Service and Bank of America, among other corporate partners, expanding to more this year. In each, we work with local city agencies and tree care nonprofits, when they exist, to figure out the specific needs of the community. When appropriate, we conduct a scientific urban ecosystem analysis using sub-meter resolution aerial imagery and i-Tree software that identify opportunities for planting and provide scientifically valid values for the relationship between such factors as various air pollutants, income and ethnicity, hospital visits and even mortality incidents. This analysis guides our subsequent urban forest restoration projects, community outreach and local policy efforts in each city.


American Forests has actually been a pioneer in urban forestry since before the field had a name, helping to define the standards of arboriculture in the early twentieth century and organizing
conferences as early as the 1970s. Our formal urban forests program launched in 1982, helping to create the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program through the 1990 Farm Bill and pioneering satellite imagery analyses beginning in 1995. The field has matured a great deal since, creating robust tree protection laws in cities nationwide, fostering new organizations and city agencies, and launching high-profile initiatives like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s MillionTreesNYC, a partnership with Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, to plant — as you might imagine — one million trees throughout New York’s five boroughs.

As that effort reaches its goal ahead of schedule this year, the question looms: what next? It was a good start, but American Forests believes the next revolution in urban greening needs to
create truly, fundamentally green cities — cities where vegetation is built into nearly every facet of urban infrastructure.

American Forests staff with shovels
American Forests teamed up with The Greening of Detroit, along with Bank of America, the U.S. Forest Service and Friends of the Rouge, to plant trees in Rouge Park in 2013 as part of the Community ReLeaf program.

To that end, we are implementing high-concept design projects that integrate with diverse disciplines and address specific socioeconomic concerns. For example, in Miami we are working with public health and county partners through their Million Trees Miami initiative to use underutilized green space as a tool for addressing obesity issues in an immigrant community. In Austin, we are developing a hack-a-thon with the local tech community to build stronger technology tools for the specific drought needs the city faces. In Detroit, having already conducted a forest inventory analysis and implemented restoration projects in the beleaguered 1,200-acre Rouge Park, we are focusing on restoring vacant land for innovative, hands-on outdoor education space.

Our work in Washington, D.C. continues as well, going deeper than ever before. American Forests is launching a new Community ReLeaf initiative in D.C. that provides an exciting opportunity to focus on not only restoring tree canopy on private and other properties in areas where tree canopy has been shown to be in decline, but also pioneering innovative means of engaging residents in the process.

A deer looks at a heron
A deer looks on as a heron wades through the urban forest on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.. Photo credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

To that end, we have three transformational restoration and engagement projects just getting underway across the District. For one, we have been able to bring the entire force of D.C.’s building industry — architects, engineers, and hundreds of volunteers — through the District of Columbia Building Industry Association to help create a portable urban farm and orchard on three acres in the Capitol View neighborhood in the far eastern corner of the city. This farm will serve a rapidly changing city like D.C. well by being able to adjust to its ever changing landscape. We are also working with local nonprofit and government partners to enhance the use of mapping technologies as a tool to improve community stewardship of new trees being planted. The third project is a living memorial space that has the potential to psychologically connect people to nature in truly groundbreaking ways, both celebrating the lives of those lost to violence and providing a path forward for those still struggling today.

As has often been the case for over a century, American Forests is pushing new boundaries for the forests where people live. Today, we are forging collaborations with new industries and thinking outside the box for bringing high-quality vegetation to people and places that might not otherwise have access to it. Our ultimate goal is to bring urban forestry to its rightful place on the forefront of addressing the most pressing issues and dynamic visions for the future.

Ian Leahy is focused on developing innovative American Forests programs that help communities better improve and manage their urban forest assets over the long term. Before joining the organization in 2014, Ian worked throughout the urban forestry field in nonprofit, municipal operations and state government roles, in addition to being a landscape design and installation business owner in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He most recently served as the State Urban and Community Forestry Coordinator for the District of Columbia. Before that he worked as an urban forestry instructor for Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks and as the Managing Editor of the publication Communities and Forests. After studying Natural Resource Policy and Management at Cornell University, Ian’s first job was at American Forests, implementing community-based forestry initiatives nationwide.