From Blight to Beauty: A Way Forward for Urban Forestry

Posted December 21, 2022 | Sustainability | Amplify
blight to beauty
In this issue:

AMPLIFY  VOL. 35, NO. 12

Kate Mitchell introduces readers to the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership (DTEP) led by DTE, the energy company that serves electricity to 2.2 million customers in Michigan. DTEP brought DTE and its partners together with a goal to plant 75,000 trees across the city, delivering co-benefits like training 300 Detroiters as urban foresters, storing 152,000 pounds of carbon, absorbing 303 million gallons of stormwater, and saving Detroit residents US $12 million in energy costs.


The event began with a hole. Beside it was the tree that would soon call it home, the ball of roots still wrapped in burlap, waiting to be planted in the earth on a median near a church in Detroit, Michigan, USA. But with a podium nearby and a crowd gathered to see the urban forestry experts do their work, this tree wasn’t your average landscaping project. Instead, it was among the first of tens of thousands to be planted across targeted areas of the city as part of the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership (DTEP). 

This initiative, formally launched with a press conference on 11 October 2022, is a US $30 million investment in Detroit to increase the city’s tree canopy and all the benefits that come with that. Led by American Forests, DTE Energy, Detroit Future City, the Greening of Detroit, and the City of Detroit, DTEP will plant 75,000 trees in highlighted areas across the city over five years while hiring 300 Detroiters and training them in the craft of tree planting and maintenance.

The October event may have been the formal launch of the partnership, but work began long before trees were put in the ground that day. The core partners had been coordinating for months to figure out how to best execute the ambitious goal of ensuring every urban neighborhood has sufficient trees to ensure every person benefits. A major piece of that was finding the right trees and putting them in the right places.

“We’re not putting these trees in areas that don’t need it,” explains Jeff Chaney, a planting crew leader with the Greening of Detroit. “We’re putting them in front of scrap yards and on service drives. There’s a beautification aspect to it. Trees speak for themselves.”

The trees the program has selected were picked to “speak” for a long time. The varieties sourced for the project were locally grown by Urban Farm Development Managers LLC and include evergreen and deciduous trees.

All are species that are either indigenous to Michigan or will thrive in every environment the Great Lakes state has to offer — from the sometimes brutal winters to the sweltering summers. Some are trees that will bloom in spring or provide vibrant color in the fall. All are meant to put down literal and proverbial far-reaching roots in the Motor City as DTEP looks to create positive change beyond just the initial span of the project.

The pilot program is taking a scalable approach to growing Detroit’s tree canopy. Planting (which began in late September, shortly before the formal launch) began at a slower pace at the end of 2022, with 2,500 trees set to go in the ground before the end of the year. Ranging in size from six feet to 10 feet in height, these trees will be installed along freeway corridors and areas known for blight.

In 2023, the work will accelerate, with a priority on gateways, highways, and commercial corridors. The focus will shift to commercial corridors and blight sites in 2024 and then to blight sites and public spaces in 2025.

As the targeted areas change over time, the partnership will grow to accommodate them, planting 8,000 to 15,000 trees and training 75 to 100 workers to plant and care for the trees every year. As the pilot comes to a close and DTEP shifts to an ongoing partnership, the program will plant 17,000 trees and train 108 new workers every year.

It Takes a Village

Although numerous organizations and businesses have been working to add to Detroit’s tree canopy and improve quality of life for its residents for years, the ambitious nature of the DTEP project is only feasible because of its partners.

“When we first engaged with American Forests about this, we asked what it would take to build an amazing tree equity program,” says Shawn Patterson, DTE Energy VP of environmental management and safety. “We were very careful around aligning everyone and their interests around this partnership. There were a lot of one-on-one conversations. We didn’t want to launch something that sounded flashy; we wanted to build something with these stakeholders.”

The partnership is indeed working toward something meaningful. The benefits of adding trees to a community go far beyond the superficial. Adding 75,000 trees to the city will sequester 152,000 pounds of carbon over 40 years, reduce stormwater runoff by 303 million gallons over the same time frame, and save residents US $12 million in energy costs, according to the Tree Equity Score (TES) by American Forests.1

Adding as many trees as DTEP intends will also help mitigate climate change impacts and improve public health outcomes. Per TES, street trees decrease temperature within 30 meters (about 34 yards) by .4 to 4 degrees Celsius (32.7-39.2 degrees Fahrenheit), a big impact since an increase of 1 degree Celsius (33.8 degrees Fahrenheit) can increase all-cause mortality rates by 3% to 5.5%. For every additional 340 trees per square mile, the rate of childhood asthma decreases by 25%. This can greatly benefit area residents: Detroit’s childhood asthma rate is 74% higher than the rest of Michigan. There are economic benefits, too. Street trees add nearly 1% to property values, and the jobs portion of the project will add $23 million in earnings to Detroit households.

The Greening of Detroit is more than familiar with all the benefits trees offer to an urban landscape. Bringing those benefits home to Detroit has long been a core part of the work they do, and becoming an integral part of DTEP was a natural fit.

“Improving the quality of life for Detroiters has been our mission,” says Monica Tabares, VP of operations and development for the Greening of Detroit. “That’s why the organization was formed, to meet those environmental needs and the community needs. The priority being increasing the city’s tree equity and providing that green space, a tree canopy that a city of this size and its residents deserve.”

Access to trees and the benefits that come from them in urban areas is becoming increasingly important. By 2030, nearly 80% of the population of the US will live in cities or suburbs, according to TES, making those benefits harder to come by in daily life.

Although this will be a challenge on a national scale, American Forests was eager to show how it could be tackled through work with DTEP.

“Detroit’s reputation and history of ingenuity in everything from manufacturing to music makes it a great place to show how improving tree equity can contribute to a city’s vitality in the 21st century,” says Eric Candela, American Forests’ director of local government relations. “American Forests is trying to do three innovative things simultaneously that we hope will contribute to our success in Detroit and have broad appeal beyond. We are leading with tree equity, trying to improve canopy in the areas of the city where trees can do the most good.

“Secondarily, by making room for more stakeholders (like DTE Energy) to participate in the work, we have effectively increased the management capacity that Detroit is able to apply to urban forestry. Finally, by treating trees as assets and monetizing the benefits they provide, we are increasing the funding available to support this work. American Forests is confident that cities throughout the country will want to replicate this approach.”

The Role of the City

The city itself has been integral to the approach crafted by the partnership. A core partner in the work, the city has identified the planting sites that will have the greatest impact on the community’s well-being.

Using a 15-factor score called the Planting Priority Index, the city uses identifiers like low tree canopy, vulnerable populations, asthma rates, proximity to high traffic volume, and proximity to schools to identify potential planting sites. Finding the right places to plant is critical, given the city’s tree-related struggles.

Detroit once had a vibrant tree canopy, but Dutch elm disease and the emerald ash borer beetle killed or damaged many trees. The city’s bankruptcy also affected the tree canopy, reducing funds spent on tree planting and maintenance for years.

“The combination of these conditions led to residents not having strong assurances around new tree plantings until maintenance and removal of dead/diseased trees is addressed,” says Dan Rieden, lead landscape architect with the City of Detroit. “By listening to community responses to past tree plantings and the feedback we received from the network of participants of the Detroit Reforestation Initiative, we believe we can address community concerns with programs that not only address maintenance needs, but also create a new generation of certified arborists and foresters from Detroit. Showing the community that trees are planted and cared for by other Detroit residents will hopefully have a positive impact.”

The jobs piece is the second major component of DTEP’s plan. It’s not enough to just add trees to the city — like all living things, they require care and maintenance to last and have a meaningful impact in their communities. This is where the urban forestry specialists come in. Trained through the Greening of Detroit, these men and women will plant and care for the new trees.

An important part of the jobs portion includes working with Detroiters who have not had the same employment opportunities as others. Recent immigrants, people without high school degrees, those reintegrating into society after incarceration, and others can undergo the training and earn a living wage, a life-changing impact for many.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to go forward in my life,” says Alex Rosario, one of the planting crew members. “It’s an opportunity to grow in knowledge, and the opportunity is so awesome.”

That the work is so impactful for the community is an added bonus for the crews, who are currently planting around 100 trees per week (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Detroit Tree Equity Partnership crews plant a locally sourced tree in one of the partnership’s targeted areas
Figure 1. Detroit Tree Equity Partnership crews plant a locally sourced tree in one of the partnership’s targeted areas

“People who live in the neighborhood walk by or stop and look, and I think they appreciate what we’re doing,” says Greening of Detroit’s Chaney. “This is not just big buildings going up; this is out in the neighborhoods where people can enjoy the tree, whether walking their dog or walking their child. It fosters a sense of community and of neighborhood pride.”

That positive impact, from the trees themselves and the communities they will help create, is DTEP’s big-picture goal. Although it’s taken a lot of work to bring together numerous organizations, businesses, and community partners, keeping an eye on the big picture has helped make the 75,000-tree pilot a reality. It’s a model that could be adopted by cities across the US to the benefit of those who live in those cities and beyond.

“There are incredible benefits to urban reforestation,” says DTE’s Patterson. “You read so much about major forests, but you can’t forget about the amount of land, the amount of opportunity, and the potential benefits that exist in our urban areas.”

With hundreds of trees already planted and newly trained arborists on the job, the benefits of bringing together these organizations and businesses are apparent. “There are so many organizations doing amazing things,” says Patterson. “It’s always been about how to amplify the contributions those organizations can make. For us, this is about coming together in ways we haven’t yet to build a coalition that helps amplify the contributions we make beyond what we could do if we were doing it on our own.”

The work of the partnership brings the mission of these organizations together to create a cleaner future, one with numerous health, environmental, and societal benefits for everyone in Detroit.

“It really does exemplify our purpose, which is to improve lives with our energy,” says Jerry Norcia, DTE’s energy chairman and CEO. “Planting trees in areas where there are tree inequities can really get at that purpose…. The idea of beautifying Detroit as well as the environmental benefits of planting trees — the cooling benefits as well as the carbon-capture benefits — creates a lot of inspiration and excitement for us to move forward with this exciting project.”


1   Tree Equity Score website, American Forests, accessed December 2022.

About The Author
Kate Mitchell
Kate Mitchell is a Corporate Communications Senior Strategist for DTE Energy. With a decade of experience in journalism before shifting to the corporate communications world, she is passionate about telling the stories that matter most to the communities where she lives and works. Ms. Mitchell also cares deeply about empowering individuals, businesses, and communities with the information and knowledge necessary to build a cleaner future for all… Read More