by Darren Cotton, Board Vice President, University Heights Collaborative
What started as a group of neighbors in Buffalo sitting around a table talking has transformed into a multi-faceted, multi-phased project that is uniting their corner of the city. ReTree the District is a collaborative project of community partners in Buffalo’s University District that is working to plant 1,000 exclusively bare root trees across the northeast corner of the city. The project utilizes the Cornell Urban Horticulture Institute bare root method and the trees come from Schichtel’s Nursery.
Started in early 2014, ReTree the District has made great strides toward its goal of planting 1,000 trees. Between fall 2014 and fall 2015, 585 trees were planted on residential streets throughout the district’s neighborhoods. The project has already brought over 1,000 volunteers to the community who invested $85,000 in volunteer hours, it has raised over $20,000 to purchase trees and tools, and it has supported the development of many new partnerships and collaborations within the community. Planting trees has become a great way for neighbors to meet one another and contribute positively to their community. Block clubs have gotten organized, student renters have worked alongside longtime homeowners, and dozens of different organizations are working together toward the same vision.
ReTree the District is also becoming known for its experimental use of digital tools and text messaging for community mapping, volunteer recruitment, event coordination, and field-based troubleshooting. Volunteers can now receive alerts on their phone about upcoming service opportunities, register and sign a digital waiver on the day of an event, and communicate real-time with project leaders while out in the field. All of this with just a few simple text messages. Readers can try it out themselves by texting ‘RETREE’ to 716-342-0400.
Instead of just using tools like shovels, rakes, and brooms, ReTree the District is figuring out ways to use the cellphones that are in most peoples’ pockets as tools for community development and organizing. Implementation began in April 2014 with a pilot of the community mapping component. University at Buffalo students and residents used a GPS-enabled smartphone application to record the location of existing trees as well as possible planting sites. These community maps helped initially determine where to plant the project’s 1,000 trees. Proposed planting locations were finally determined after conferring with residents and using the City’s online volunteer tree planting reservation system which is tied into the City’s tree inventory. The planting locations and tree species selected are ultimately approved by the city forester. The texting tools continue to be improved and expanded to help project organizers with logistics and increase efficiency of the volunteer plantings.
Drawing on the benefits derived from close collaboration and data-driven decision-making, ReTree the District has also developed a pilot tree stewardship program to increase the survivorship rate of the newly planted trees, which is currently 89%. Hands-on workshops have been held in the neighborhood, with volunteers learning basic tree pruning techniques and general tree care. The Buffalo Parks Department is also rolling out a city-wide tree stewardship program in spring of 2016 through a collaborative agreement with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County. One exciting aspect of this is a partnership with the University Heights Tool Library, a neighborhood organization that promotes community reinvestment by providing residents with access to the right tools. Professional-grade tree pruning tools have been purchased by the Buffalo Green Fund, a local nonprofit focused on urban beautification, to be made available to citizens who participate in the tree stewardship program.
The impetus for ReTree the District, and its much larger parent organization, ReTree Western New York, came from a number of contributing factors that go back decades. Once known as “The City of Trees,” the City of Buffalo has experienced significant urban tree loss since the 1970s when Dutch Elm Disease began devastating the urban forest. Subsequent events, such as the 2006 “October Surprise,” where an early winter storm downed tens of thousands of trees, have contributed to further losses.
Western New York has actively responded to these losses with the activities of ReTree WNY, community associations, and neighborhood groups. By continuing to strengthen healthy urban tree canopies throughout WNY, communities are once again starting to experience the extensive benefits they can contribute, such as safer pedestrian and bicycling environments, increased property values, improved air quality, reduction in crime, and stormwater runoff mitigation.
More than just planting trees, however, ReTree the District has helped re-energize a community that often experiences the negative effects of neighbor anonymity and media stereotypes. The student-resident divide has begun to be bridged, the classroom has been expanded to neighborhood streets through free stewardship classes, and residents have seen the tangible impacts they can have in their own neighborhood.
For those who are interested in following the project’s progress, visit www.ourheights.org/retree. Volunteer opportunities as well as a crowdfunding campaign for the project are available here: https://www.givegab.com/nonprofits/university-heights-tool-library/campaigns/retree-the-district
Project sponsors include the Buffalo Green Fund, Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, University at Buffalo, UB Academies, University District Community Development Association, University District Councilmember Rasheed Wyatt, and the University Heights Collaborative. Additional support has been provided by Akron Tree Farms, Bailey Avenue Business Association, B Team Buffalo, Buffalo CarShare, Chestnut Ridge Nursery, City of Buffalo Division of Parks and Recreation, Dunkin’ Donuts, Grow716, Home Depot, ReTree WNY, Schichtel’s Nursery, St. Joseph University Parish, University District Block Club Coalition, and the University Heights Tool Library.