Engaging underserved populations in community tree management activities

Engaging underserved populations in community tree management activities


Jason Gordon, PhD, University of Georgia Research Foundations, Inc.

Urban tree values have been successfully communicated through ecosystem services accounting, plant appraisal, and communications campaigns of local governments, tree councils, and others. However, sometimes such efforts fail in their desired impact, possibly because they have assumed a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take into account the experiences, values, and cultures of diverse community members and neighborhoods. Effective communication of the human and community benefits of urban forestry and arboriculture, along with designing and implementing such programs to provide maximum community impact, fundamentally requires a place-based approach. As such, social scientists typically look at diversity across dimensions such as race and ethnicity, gender, and class, because these differences produce both different cultures (i.e., world views, values, attitudes, and behaviors) and positionality (i.e., locations due to structural factors such as historical patterns of education, income, wealth, discrimination, and representation) (Schelhas 2002; Gordon et al. 2013). It is well-known that lower income and minority households often reside in areas with low tree canopy cover (see metanalysis by Gerrish and Watkins 2018), while at the same time there are cases where residents have declined tree planting programs due to past experiences of tree-related hardship, anticipation of lack of city services for trees are, and lack of input into species selection (Carmichael and McDonough 2019).

Despite several studies documenting spatial patterns of tree risk, benefits, and management activities across cities, few have examined the sociocultural processes through which these patterns develop, or how disparities can be addressed fairly and with sensitivity to cultural norms. In this qualitative study, we will work with a city government (Athens-Clarke County) and a community organization (Athens Land Trust) to explore how local values and attitudes affect perceptions of risks and benefits of trees in the historically African American West Broad neighborhood of Athens, Georgia. Reflecting the goal of the Bob Skiera Memorial Fund Grant, our goal is to help urban tree managers communicate the values of trees and urban forests to diverse communities. To this end, our specific objective is to identify economic, cultural, biophysical, and social-structural impediments and opportunities to communicating urban tree benefits and risks. In alignment with participatory research approaches (Wilmsen et al. 2008), we will apply within the project period our findings to experiential learning activities that engage residents with neighborhood tree care/advocacy and test the efficacy of these activities for effective communication of tree benefits.


Study Results

Risk perceptions were associated with age and income or wealth, consistent with risk perception literature. Older participants expressed heightened concerns and negativity towards trees than younger people. The cost of hazard tree removal was a key theme for this low-income neighborhood. Without addressing this issue, participants were limited in their capacity to enjoy tree benefits. When a tree was removed, residents were hesitant to replant due to the inherent risk of failure they experienced in the past. This behavior was justifiable based on the frequency of failures. Education was unlikely to make a substantial difference due to the economic challenges and previous experiences.

In addition to concerns, participants were fairly cognizant of the benefits of trees, and overall, they valued trees. A number of participants noted how the old trees added value to their properties, a factor that was drawing a wealthier white demographic into the neighborhood. Many participants commented on how they enjoyed the trees when they would sit on their porches. There were numerous photos and discussions of fruit trees, demonstrating the importance of these trees to the community. Given their concerns, articulating the benefits of trees was not always easy or straightforward for participants. It was important to talk about trees within the context other neighborhood factors.

Interest in trees was distracted by other concerns. The summer of 2020, when most of the interview data collection took place, was challenging for these neighborhoods. In some cases, participants said they even stopped going outside because of fear of COVID-19. Well-being issues like employment, schools, and affordable housing were foremost in residents’ minds. This means tree care in this neighborhood should be approached as an environmental justice issue that must be addressed comprehensively with pollution, local economy, and other community issues. A local non-profit organization (a co-PI here) has been doing this by addressing tree care alongside housing quality using grant funds. Additional investigation should examine opportunities for municipal subsidies for tree pruning and removal, although a more sustainable solution should also be sought.

In this case study, we found that communicating benefits was more about involving residents in community-wide conversations about trees, whereby tree information could be shared, rather than “preached”. Engagement must appreciate residents’ situational knowledge and experiences in addition to promoting concepts and prescriptions of tree professionals. Peer-to-peer communication (and informal education) was critical to this long-term process. Local conversations needed to occur first to strengthen the social scaffolding and leadership necessary to motivate more formal transfer of knowledge and skills.

As such, communicating tree benefits is a community development activity in addition to an environmental justice issue. Tree care in these neighborhoods should be part of the comprehensive planning and the residents need to be involved in the planning and management discussions, possibly through a local organization of representation. Our findings also suggest private tree care firms, who are trusted by residents as a result of their meaningful interactions in the neighborhood, would be critical to the success of communicating tree benefits and risks.


Year of Grant Awarded: 2019

Grant Program: Bob Skiera Memorial Fund Building Bridges Initiative Grant Program

Grant Title: Engaging Underserved Populations In Community Tree Management Activities

Researcher: Jason Gordon, PhD

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