The greening of Baltimore City
Look out your window. If you see a leafy, mature tree, count yourself lucky. You probably breathe cleaner air, use less energy to cool your home, and enjoy a shady place to relax outdoors. Statistically, you’re less likely to be prescribed antidepressants or experience crime, too.
Unfortunately, many residents of Baltimore City don’t see trees outside their homes — too many, according to the Baltimore Tree Trust (BTT), a nonprofit on a mission “to ensure all Baltimoreans have access to the benefits of a healthy environment.”
Since the organization’s founding in 2008, when then-Mayor Martin O’Malley pledged to double the city’s tree canopy by 2037, BTT has planted 12,000 trees, completely transforming Baltimore neighborhoods like Oliver, Broadway East and Butchers Hill.
In Baltimore, where the need for street trees often outpaces the municipal budget, the nonprofit has been instrumental in keeping the city’s goal within striking distance.
To get trees in the ground, BTT often turns to partner organizations to provide volunteers for tree-planting events. Most of those urban gardeners are retirees, said Justin Bowers, the trust’s associate director.
“A good majority of the volunteers we work with are in the 55-plus demographic,” Bowers said.
Saving our largest urban park
Last fall, when BTT planted its 10,000th tree, the group chose a plot in Winan’s Meadow in Gwynns Falls-Leakin Park, a 1,200-acre woodland on the city’s west side. Volunteers from Friends of Gwynns Falls-Leakin Park were on hand to help and to celebrate the park they helped save.
The group was founded in 1983 as an offshoot of the “Stop the Road” movement, a protest that successfully prevented an interstate from paving over the largest urban park in the country. (If you’ve ever driven to the terminus of I-70 and found yourself amazed that the thoroughfare peters out in one unremarkable U-turn, now you know why.)
“The old-timers on their membership rolls are legendary in our industry for basically shutting down the I-70 expansion through the park and taking over management when the city cut funding to the Recreation and Parks Department,” Bower said in an email.
The Friends group has maintained the urban park’s trails and historic buildings for more than 40 years, ensuring it remains a public asset for decades to come.
For residents of Baltimore neighborhoods that still lack green space, parks like Gwynns Falls-Leakin Park are essential not just for recreation, but for the all the physical and mental health benefits nature provides.
“When you’re there, you don’t know you’re in the city,” said George Farrant, a retired CCBC professor and longtime volunteer. “It’s like an undiscovered country.”
Farrant and other volunteers say that the pandemic has brought waves of new visitors and volunteers to Gwynns Falls-Leakin Park, stir-crazy Baltimoreans needing a dose of exercise and nature.
Parks improve quality of life
Friends president and avid hiker Bridget McCusker, 67, started volunteering eight years ago. When she and her husband moved to the park-adjacent Hunting Ridge neighborhood in 2013, the park was a big part of the draw.
“The real gift is the 1,200 acres I get to enjoy, and the many people I get to meet in the park,” McCusker said. “I call it my own Appalachian Trail.”
Ed and Jo Orser, a retired UMBC professor and school counselor respectively, have volunteered for decades in the park, located near their Hunting Ridge home of 49 years. Ed wrote a book about the history of the park, some of which has been adapted to signage along nearby bike trails.
Jo is proud of the work the group has done to make people feel safer in the park, by tackling projects like “limbing up,” or trimming branches along trails to create better visibility.
Not only does Friends work with BTT on tree plantings in the park, but they’ve also relied on the trust to replace street trees in the surrounding neighborhood that have succumbed to the emerald ash borer, a destructive invasive beetle.
There’s no doubt that planting trees is a boon for public health, but the Baltimore Tree Trust’s mission is also about social justice.
Historically, communities of color have lacked green space, resulting in higher instances of heat- and pollution-related diseases.
Older residents and those suffering from chronic illnesses are also especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of treeless neighborhoods, such as smog and soaring temperatures. (In Baltimore, for example, leafy neighborhoods can be up to 16 degrees cooler than those with few trees.)
Apprentices help maintain trees
This year, the Baltimore Tree Trust is “trying to cultivate a different attitude about stewardship” in the city as a whole, according to Bowers.
“We get a lot of interest from funders and volunteers in tree plantings,” he said, “but not so much in maintenance.”
To survive, trees require near-constant attention, including watering, trimming and removing invasive species. As a result, the average street tree lives for only seven years.
That means many trees die before they even begin offering benefits like shade, air filtration, stormwater runoff control and peaceful ambiance.
A few years ago, BTT leadership concluded that caring for the thousands of trees it had planted using only volunteer labor just wasn’t practical. So it created the Urban Roots Apprenticeship — a two-month program that trains, mentors and connects Baltimoreans to successful careers in the tree care and landscaping industries.
The workforce development program is a win-win for Baltimore: After apprentices complete their training, BTT helps them find gainful, meaningful employment. During their paid apprenticeship, they “practice” on BTT’s plantings, so street trees can grow into their full, life-giving potential.
“It’s a big change in how forestry is done in the city of Baltimore,” Bowers said.
With more boots on the ground, BTT can keep better track of where trees are thriving and where they still need to be planted. And while Urban Roots apprentices are working in neighborhoods, they can meet and empower residents to nurture the trees outside their home.
Additionally, residents-turned-foresters can help increase local buy-in for street trees in their communities, where some neighbors may object to tree plantings over concerns of weeds (and mosquitos) in summertime and leaves in the fall.
Through an expanding workforce, BTT is closer than ever to helping all Baltimoreans improve their lives with a little greenery. It’s hard work, but a greener city is a cleaner, safer city.
“The benefits of the trees grow with the trees,” Bowers said.