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How “The Greening of Detroit” Has Revitalized an Historic City (2024)

Detroit was once one of the crown jewels of the United States. It was the home of the automotive industry boom in the early 20th century, but the city slowly collapsed as jobs got outsourced to other locations. Its population dwindled from 1.8 million to just 639,000.

The city’s decline prompted a group of environmentalists to start a new revival program in 1989 to bring new life to the area: The Greening of Detroit.

For the past 34 years, the organization has been working to make their city more eco-friendly and welcoming for residents.

Detroit’s Unique Environmental Crisis

Detroit faces a unique environmental crisis compared to other cities. Between 1950 and 1980, the city lost an estimated 500,000 trees due to Dutch elm disease and urban sprawl.

Economic and legal restraints made it impossible to replace the trees during this time. The 1980s saw a mass exodus of residents due to the lack of greenery and job opportunities.

Greening of Detroit - Stock Image from Canva of the Detroit MI from above

The environmental crisis got worse as the 20th century wore on. Pollution from industrial facilities, coal plants and public transportation ruined Detroit’s air quality. Summers were unbearably hot because there were no trees to provide shade.

A handful of residents decided enough was enough and established The Greening of Detroit in 1989.

Building a Green Infrastructure

So, what has The Greening of Detroit been up to? The non-profit organization aims to bring trees back into the city. So far, they have planted over 135,000 trees in Detroit’s metropolitan area, Highland Park and Hamtramck.

They like to focus on residential streets, parks and playgrounds so the next generation grows up in a green environment.

Although planting trees seems like a simple objective, it’s the all-important foundation for every city’s green infrastructure. Trees make urban areas much healthier in several ways:

  • Serve as natural habitats for local wildlife
  • Produce oxygen, filter carbon dioxide and improve air quality
  • Prevent flooding from stormwater run-off
  • Provide shade and stabilize local temperatures
  • Improve mental health
  • Stifle noise pollution

Most of the group’s trees come from the Walter Meyers Nursery in Rouge Park. This 72-acre nursery holds thousands of tree saplings and a retention pond. The retention pond can have more than 1 million gallons of surface water, which is crucial given Detroit’s location next to the fast-flowing Detroit River.

According to president Lionel Bradford, The Greening of Detroit has increased the city’s canopy to 24%. American Forests recommends a canopy cover of 40%–60% for urban areas.

Detroit is still below average but has made significant improvements and is on pace to exceed 27% by 2030.

Greening of Detroit - Stock Image from Canva of the a beautufully maintained park with grass, trees and birds, and the Detroit MI skyline in the background

Stimulating Economic Growth

The Greening of Detroit might be non-profit, but it has indirectly played a key role in creating economic growth in the city.

Trees aren’t just beneficial to the environment. they also help the economy by increasing property values, boosting the curb appeal of local shops and preventing unnecessary road maintenance.

Thanks to the efforts of local environmental groups like The Greening of Detroit, many of the city’s iconic landmarks and outdoor attractions have gotten a new lease on life.

Places like The Heidelberg Project and New Center Park are filled with trees planted by the organization.

The Greening of Detroit also provides many job and training opportunities. Volunteers can earn certifications in landscaping, tree artisanship and snow removal to further their careers.

They also learn relevant skills in financial literacy, health and safety.

So far, more than 54,000 volunteers have worked with the group and gained valuable real-world experience. About 1,000 of those volunteers have graduated from the Detroit Conservation Program, the organization’s adult workforce training cohort.

Perhaps most importantly, The Greening of Detroit lends a helping hand to low-income individuals, reformed criminals and other forgotten citizens.

The organization’s 30th Anniversary video by Ryan Herbert features some inspiring stories of local residents who got their lives back on track thanks to the organization:

So, although reforestation is The Greening of Detroit’s main goal, it has also revitalized the city’s economy in many ways. The group’s impact goes far beyond the trees themselves.

Raising Awareness

The Greening of Detroit is also an educational organization. It hopes to raise awareness among local residents about the city’s environmental struggle and teaches people how to adopt more eco-friendly habits.

You can find local programs about gardening, birdwatching, beekeeping, raising butterflies and many other activities.

One of the organization’s most impactful initiatives has been the Green Corps leadership program. This program started in 1999 and has helped thousands of children develop their leadership skills and become upstanding citizens. They also receive training in conflict resolution, team-building and SAT/ACT prep. Getting local youth involved in environmental causes helps the city for decades to come.

The Greening of Detroit has formed alliances with many community gardens and environmental organizations in the area. Lafayette Greens and Detroiters in the Garden have been the most impactful partnerships.

These groups work together to maintain Detroit’s historic green spaces and educate the next generations about the importance of sustainability.

All these educational efforts combine to make the local population more self-sufficient. Residents can learn how to start their own vegetable gardens and reduce their environmental footprint.

They also learn about the roles of native tree species. Learning these skills helps them become more in tune with the local ecosystem.

Greening of Detroit - Stock Image from Canva of a woman harvesting veggies from a communal garden with two kids

Achieving Tree Equity

Tree equity is a scoring system coined by American Forests, one of the nation’s leading conservation groups.

According to American Forests, Detroit has a tree equity score of 80. This number is comparable to other cities like Phoenix and Seattle but is not close to the ideal score of 100.

A perfect tree equity score means a city provides a fair balance of greenery across all communities, regardless of income or demographics. Many American cities have below-average tree equity scores, and low-income Black neighborhoods tend to have fewer trees than more affluent white areas. Detroit is no exception.

The Greening of Detroit has been key in establishing tree equity throughout the city. Most of the group’s tree-planting efforts take place in impoverished areas where the volunteers live. East side neighborhoods like Franklin Park, Warrendale and Fitzgerald are just a few neighborhoods the group has filled with trees.

Although Detroit has a long way to go before reaching a tree equity score of 100, the city wouldn’t be close to 80 without The Greening of Detroit.

Every tree planted brings the city one step closer to providing a comfortable, eco-friendly living environment for all its residents.

How to Donate or Volunteer for The Greening of Detroit

If you want to help The Greening of Detroit, you can volunteer at one of the group’s tree-planting locations or join the Citizen Forester program.

This program will make you a leader of the tree-planting volunteers and give you access to more training opportunities.

You can also donate money or buy your very own tree with the Gift of a Tree Program. One of the main reasons for The Greening of Detroit’s success is the many ways average citizens can contribute to the cause.

Greening of Detroit - Stock Image from Canva Detroit MI city centre with trees along the sidewalks

Greening Detroit One Tree at a Time

Detroit used to be a hub of industry and manufacturing, but now it’s starting to earn a reputation as an eco-friendly city.

The Greening of Detroit has a lot to do with this drastic change. Its volunteers are making Detroit a better place, one tree at a time.

One can only imagine how beautiful the city will be in 25 years when all the trees are fully grown!

About the Author

About the Author - Image of Oscar Collins from ModdedOscar Collins is the editor-in-chief at Modded, where he writes about cars, auto news, and similar topics. Follow him on Twitter @TModded for frequent updates!


Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Detroit so polluted?

Detroit’s pollution problem primarily comes from its excessive urbanization and poor landscape management. There is not enough greenery to offset the negative impacts of the city’s industrial emissions. The Greening of Detroit is hoping to change that. Read the full article to learn more about the greening of Detroit and how it is combatting pollution in the city.

Why are trees so important for cities?

Trees are crucial parts of a city’s infrastructure because they support the local wildlife, reduce the risk of flooding, provide shade and eliminate noise pollution. They also stimulate the economy by making the city more hospitable and raising property values. Read the full article to learn more about how trees benefit urban environments.

How many trees does The Greening of Detroit plant?

The Greening of Detroit has planted more than 135,000 trees thus far, which equates to almost 2,500 trees a year since the organization’s establishment in 1989. Read the full article to learn more about how trees have been used to make Detroit a better city, for the environment and the residents.

How many more trees does Detroit need?

Estimates vary, but American Forests says that Detroit still needs 1.2 million trees to achieve an average “tree equity” score. Read the full article to learn more about the greening of Detroit and their tree planting mission.

References and Useful Resources

American Forests: Why We No Longer Recommend a 40% Urban Tree Canopy Goal

Greening of Detroit: Growing Tomorrow’s Detroit

Modded: How to Plant a Vegetable Garden for Beginners

The Henry Ford: Things to Do in Detroit

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