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By John Murray

Kevin Taylor started watching “The Wire” recently with his wife, Kathy, and besides the drugs and violence depicted in the Baltimore drug scene, another thing stood out to the Taylors – inner city Baltimore had no trees. This is significant as Scientific American magazine has reported that trees are missing in low income, largely minority neighborhoods across America.

Taylor is the executive director at Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury (NHSW) and his job encompasses a slew of issues including homebuyer education, landlord education, foreclosure prevention, leadership training, affordable housing, community building and the COVID housing crisis.

Add trees to that list as NHSW has formed a coalition to launch an Urban Forestry Program in Waterbury, and the first trees were placed in the ground on November 6th.

For more than a century redlining was used in America to discriminate against minorities in inner city neighborhoods by denying them access to loans to move up and out of the neighborhood. Hamstringing millions of Black and Brown people from accessing the American dream wasn’t the only discriminatory practice foisted on inner cities as a lack of trees in vulnerable neighborhoods had a profound impact on the health and well being of the population.

A nationwide tally of trees analyzed population density, socioeconomics and existing tree cover in 150,000 neighborhoods in 3810 cities and towns and confirmed that trees are lacking in neighborhoods where minorities live. The survey gave communities a Tree Equity Score, and one fifth of Waterbury fell short of a desired standard that would provide health benefits to residents. Those areas in Waterbury are minority neighborhoods where more than 60% of the residents are people of color.

Inner city Waterbury has inadequate tree covering. (From Tree Equity Project)

To reach a healthy tree canopy goal established by American Forests, a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring healthy forest ecosystems, the City of Waterbury would need to plant 45,465 trees – adding 1.8% more tree cover to the city. If Waterbury can do that, according to the Tree Equity Project, the city would annually remove 606 tons of carbon from the air, reduce water run off and capture tons of carbon monoxide, ozone and a host of other pollutants.

Graph of the Tree Equity Score from Waterbury.

Trees are healers. Trees also create higher property values, improve water quality and clean the air.

And this is why Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury has partnered with the Naugatuck Valley Project, the Audubon Society, the City of Waterbury, New Morning Market, MUUS, the Riverside Cemetery Association, Children’s Community School, the AI-3 Leadership Academy, the Connecticut Community Foundation, Habitat For Humanity, DEEP and the Crownbrook Neighborhood Association to launch the Urban Forestry Program in the Crownbook neighborhood in Waterbury.

“Waterbury is the only city in Connecticut that does not have a tree planting program for it’s residents,” Kevin Taylor, the executive director of NHSW said. “We’re changing that. And the trees are free.”

And the change began on November 6th with the program’s first tree planting at the Love & Care Community Garden, on Burton Street, in the Crownbrook neighborhood. So how does the program work? Slowly, at first, one tree at a time.

If you have a residence or own a property in the Crownbook neighborhood, or if you are a renter and the landlord agrees to participate, you call Ian Blake at NHSW and apply for a free tree (two is the maximum a homeowner can get). Someone will come out and assess your yard, and if everything is approved, volunteers will dig the hole and plant the tree at no cost to the resident.

Crownbrook is targeted first as it is one of the areas lacking in adequate tree cover. So what’s the big deal about tree cover?

Less tree canopy cover means more heat in the summer. Instead of the heat being absorbed by trees it is pulled into asphalt and brick buildings and parking lots. A lack of shade creates urban heat islands, and Scientific American reported that urban heat islands can, “can cause temperatures to be 5 to 7 degrees warmer during the day, and as much as 22 degrees warmer at night.”

The added heat creates dangerous health risks, and a lack of trees in a neighborhood adversely impacts air quality as trees also absorb pollutants. The South End of Waterbury has more toxic industry than any zip code in the city, has a tree shortage in its densely populated areas, and has the highest asthma rate in Connecticut.

“We need to make sure the trees go where the people are,” Jad Daley of American Forests said.

Achieving tree equity should be a national priority. To reach the goal established by the Tree Equity Project it would take an estimated 522 million trees, mostly in metropolitan areas with 50,000 people or more. The benefits, the project estimates, would be staggering; it would create and sustain 3.8 million jobs and remove 9.3 million tons of carbon from the air each year (equal to removing 92 million cars off the roads).

In cities across America, trees have historically been planted along race and class lines. Ensuring equitable tree cover across every neighborhood can help address social inequities so that all people can thrive.

NHSW’s Urban Forestry Program began with a call from Michael Lang of the Naugatuck Valley Project. The group had $3000 left over from an environmental grant and Lang reached out to Kevin Taylor to see if they might begin a tree farm in Waterbury. Upon further investigation the best strategy, they concluded, would be to buy trees wholesale and plant them directly in resident’s yards.

“We’ve applied for two grants and the State has funding for these programs,” Lang said. “we’ve created partnerships and an educational program to teach residents why it’s good to have trees in their yards and how to maintain them.”

Michael Lang from the Naugatuck Valley Project began the initiative with a phone call.

Taylor, standing in the Love & Care Community Garden in Crownbrook, next to the flowering dogwoods just planted, wants the trees to help the neighborhood residents, provide beauty with annual flowers, assist birds with cover, and one day hopes to have bees in the garden where the community can harvest honey.

During the tree planting in the Love & Care Community Garden in the Crownbrook neighborhood, Kevin Taylor stepped away to explain the program to a curious neighbor.

Mark Lombardo from the City of Waterbury Parks Department has been a big help connecting the program to a tree wholesaler, and providing municipal equipment to dig holes. Lombardo oversees tree plantings in city parks and on municipal golf courses, and is now getting involved with the city’s first effort of working directly with homeowners.

After the trees were planted Lombardo swept in to check the progress and made several quick adjustments to realign the trees, and remove burlap coverings. Attention to detail gives the trees their best chance to flourish.

The Love & Care Community Garden in the Crownbrook sits on two abandoned lots owned by the City of Waterbury. Can this be replicated all over the city?

“The trees are free,” Kevin Taylor said. “and we’re hoping the residents in Crownbrook take advantage of our program. People in the North End and South End of Waterbury deserve nice things too. We’re beginning in Crownbrook and hope to eventually expand to offer this to other neighborhoods, and eventually the entire city.”

Ian Blake from Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury, left, learned some planting tips from Mark Lombardo, middle, Supervisor of Parks & Golf Courses for Waterbury.

Ian Blake, an outreach coordinator at Neighborhood Housing, will head the Urban Forestry Program. “The city doesn’t offer free trees to private property owners,” Blake said. “And once we get the program up and running this is going to benefit the residents, the neighborhoods and the environment.”

Participants at the first tree planting were delighted to get the program launched.

To order a tree contact Ian Blake at iblake@nhswaterbury.org or call him at 203-753-1896,

Progress in Crownbrook. A new community garden and now a tree planting program.

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