In my Masters research I looked into the influence of local greenspaces on why people chose to move out to the suburbs. That apparent connection to nature featured in the top three of most of my participants decisions. This isn’t really surprising as local nature has been previously found to be connected to greater sense of community and lower crime as well as influencing aspects like individual stress levels and productivity. So then why did 24% of residents in Detroit, Michigan, who were offered a street tree to be planted in front of their home turn down the offer ?
This was the question that Carmichael and McDonough (2019) set out to answer and what they found also makes sense and shows how important it is to engage local community and residents. While Detroit was “The City of Trees” with more trees per capita until the 1950s, by 1980 Dutch elm disease, urban expansion, and neglect had resulted in the death of more than 500,000 trees (American Forests 2012 as cited in Carmichael and McDonough). Race related conflict had also resulted in a significant decline in the city’s human population (more than half of the population left between 1950 and 2016) meaning that there was a lot of vacant property and a smaller tax base. These two factors worked together to create the resistance to the recent tree planting initiative. Residents were concerned that they would be left caring for dying trees because that’s what had happened before: as the tree maintenance budget decreased, the city no longer tended the urban trees (which do typically need tending) and the residents were left holding the rake.
This is one of the challenges with many initiatives like this. An organization, be that government, non-profit, or private, swoops in and makes decisions. They may offer opportunities for the public to learn about the decisions or the initiatives but rarely do the residents or the subjects of the initiatives get to be anything more than that, just subjects of an initiative. They don’t get to play a role in the process that they deem as meaningful. This creates resistance to a plan that they may have supported if only they had been involved in creating and implementing that plan. This is something that needs to be kept in mind when anyone looks at starting an initiative for someone else. Not only do you need to meaningfully engage the community in question as participants not subjects but you need to find out what they think would be meaningful not tell them what is.
Christine E. Carmichael & Maureen H. McDonough (2019): Community Stories: Explaining Resistance to Street Tree-Planting Programs in Detroit, Michigan, USA, Society & Natural Resources, DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2018.1550229