Miss Floribunda: Can tree canopies cause controversy
Dear Miss Floribunda,
I really enjoyed your interview with Dawn Taft last month, and I love the whole idea of city tree giveaways and mass planting. Coming from a small town in West Texas not shaded by many trees, I am a big fan of the tree-lined streets of Hyattsville and the pocket parks. I scanned the article and sent it to some friends back home, one of whom used to live in Detroit, and another in Japan. My friend who lived in Detroit told me that city tree planting is racist, while the friend who had lived in Japan told me the Japanese invented the whole concept and called it green bathing. I’ve tried to look up green bathing and didn’t find anything.
What do you know about all this?
Tree Hugger on Hamilton Street
Dear Tree Hugger,
First of all, what your friend who lived in Japan remembers as “green bathing” is “shinrin-yoku,” which translates as “forest bathing.” The Japanese like to go out into forests to walk, picnic and refresh their spirits through total immersion in green shade and the sounds of nature. We are very fortunate that we can do the same in nearby Magruder Park, where mulched nature paths take you into the heart of the wooded areas. This might provide healthy relief from COVID-19-induced cabin fever.
It is quite true that the most massive urban tree planting initiative in history occurred in Japan after World War II. It was part of the rebuilding of cities devastated by bombing. It became the model for similar projects elsewhere in the world.
Tree planting is recognized as the single most effective bulwark against climate change. Think about it: According to the U.S. Forest Service, just one mature tree absorbs an estimated 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year, and wooded areas absorb 20 to 30% of carbon emissions from fossil fuels. In addition, the Japanese discovered many psychologically related benefits of exposure to arboreal areas: reduction of stress; lowered blood pressure; improved concentration, even in children with ADHD; increased energy level coupled with better, deeper sleep; stronger immune system; quicker recovery from surgery; and general improvement of mood through the experience of beauty. The concept was taken up in the U.S. in the 1990s under the term “ecotherapy.”
However, you are right that there has been opposition to tree planting from minorities in some neighborhoods — notably in Detroit, which has a complicated history. In 2006 a study by the nonprofit American Forests revealed that Detroit had a tree canopy of only 31% in contrast to 47% impermeable surface. The only neighborhoods having tree-lined streets were located in the most affluent areas. “If we show you a map of tree canopy in virtually any city in America, we’re also showing you a map of income,” Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, told NPR. And in many cases, we’re showing you a map of race and ethnicity.” In 2015, when environmental activists tried to start a tree planting program in Detroit’s inner city, they were met with suspicion.
That suspicion can be traced as far back as the race riots of July 1967 and April 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the continuing removal of an existing tree canopy ravaged by Dutch elm disease in the late 1950s, followed by severe drought in the early 1960s. Detroit lost 80% of its tree canopy, and when it was removed, many residents assumed that the reason was to enhance helicopter surveillance by police. There had already been problems earlier, even before the riots, when helicopters had sprayed trees with dangerous chemicals that made residents sick. As a result, even years later, many questioned the motives of strangers coming into their neighborhoods with any project concerning trees.
By 2017, when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced his “10,000 Up, 10,000 Down” program to remove dead trees and replace them with live trees, the tree canopy had further declined to about 20%. Fifteen years of predations by emerald ash borers had made a serious situation disastrous. However, since that time, the Greening of Detroit initiative, in cooperation with the City of Detroit, has been making steady progress — not only by giving away trees but by addressing such problems as soil remediation to give trees planted a better chance of survival and recognizing the need for more diversity among trees selected for planting. Ironically, one of the objections to the first tree planting programs was that residents were denied a say in what trees would be chosen. They had wanted their individual preferences respected rather than the imposition of a monoculture.
Your questions have led to aspects of tree preservation and promotion that weren’t in the scope of last month’s interview: the sociological and the psychological. These rank among the reasons why many thoughtful people in Hyattsville prefer to have their children grow up happily playing in an area graced by lovely trees to having high-density housing with more traffic and more carbon emissions. You don’t have to be a poet, painter, esthete or mystic to be a tree hugger!
Please keep checking the Hyattsville Horticultural Society website for news of the next meeting, be it in-person or virtual.