Seeding an Urban Forest Renaissance

Tree planting has never been more popular, or more scrutinized, than it is today. 

More companies are making net-zero pledges than we can count, and surging demand for offsets is pushing up the price of carbon. Gradually, an emerging market for 3rd party validation of carbon benefits is revealing when investments make a difference, and when they fall short. 

This is a good thing. We don’t want to end up in a place where our efforts to combat climate change aren’t aligned with actual levels of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere or increased resilience in the face of a less certain world. In order to effectively draw down carbon, we need more accurate and transparent impact measurement to keep us honest. This will lead to greater trust and adoption of offsets as valuable climate solutions. It will also help create pressure on credit suppliers to develop better projects. 

And then there are the smaller, community-based projects that don’t fit most crediting models.

This year Cambium Carbon made our first investments in tree planting, funded by our 2020 Kickstarter campaign that featured gorgeous cutting boards manufactured locally from fallen trees in Baltimore, MD and New Haven, CT. We’d like to tell you how we made our decisions.

Cambium Carbon’s Baltimore cutting boards are made from salvaged local trees.

Thinking Beyond $1 Per Tree

A common method for planting trees is to give money to organizations that will plant one tree for every dollar invested, generating tradable carbon credits along the way. It would be an easy way to plant thousands of trees as a result of our Kickstarter. It’s a legitimate option. In this instance, however, we decided to focus our investments on local, well-designed urban forestry projects that are usually too small to be credited.

We know that investments in urban trees make a difference. We know this because in most cities, networks of urban forestry programs, local stewardship groups, tree planting NGOs, and private citizens have built up decades of experience developing projects tailored to their communities. They are used to scrutiny. Projects and project outcomes are highly visible in cities. Over time and through trial and error, local tree experts and supporters have iterated on past efforts, improving what they do.

This work is important because while we need drawdown, we also need to adapt, and specifically adapt with communities that are most likely to suffer from increased urban heat and minimal access to nature. American Forests defines Tree Equity as “ensuring every neighborhood has enough trees so that every person can reap the benefits that trees have to offer.” If we are to embrace this standard, we need to look beyond the $1 per tree model. 

How to Fund High-Impact Urban Forestry

Our process for finding great projects started by getting to know local organizations who develop and implement them. Specifically, we searched for NGOs that not only plant trees, but support their community in other ways. The Baltimore Tree Trust immediately impressed us with the scope and diversity of their projects and different approaches to tree planting. In addition to planting trees, the Tree Trust works toward several other community values:

  • Priority for projects supported by local residents through effective outreach and project planning
  • Priority for neighborhoods that are traditionally underserved and have less canopy relative to other parts of the city
  • Strong workforce development and job training programs
  • Active partnership with local institutions, like MedStar Hospital, that own property where canopy can be expanded

 

In working with local partners, our goal is to listen first and fund their needs, not our own agenda. Tree planting organizations frequently struggle to build internal capacity that supports larger project pipelines while also performing ongoing maintenance of trees after they are planted. (It takes two to three years of care to help new trees become established and lock in carbon benefits long-term). This is why we are open-minded when organizations ask if a portion of our project-based donation can be used for operations and maintenance. They know what they are talking about. 

Ultimately we decided to contribute to one of the Tree Trust’s street tree rehabilitation projects in partnership with the Pigtown Community Association in Baltimore. The Tree Trust partnered with the Association to pursue grants from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to create new tree wells, expand existing wells, grind old stumps, and plant 180 new trees. Before committing, the Tree Trust reached out to ask whether the community was interested in additional sponsorship to expand the project, receiving an enthusiastic “yes.”

In total, our contribution will remove a dozen stumps, rehabilitate the wells, and plant them with new trees. Relative to national reforestation targets, this is less than a drop in the bucket, but for the residents who have spent years looking at those tree stumps, recalling bygone shade from bygone trees, it’s not only a meaningful contribution. It may be one of the most impactful climate resilience investments we can make in that community.  

And here’s our call to action: We believe it’s time for more companies to diversify tree planting efforts in their impact portfolios. In addition to carbon offset purchases, we encourage sustainability programs to commit a portion of their annual giving to high-impact urban forestry projects. Doing so will drive better projects in the same way that landscape-scale carbon verification technologies hold both project developers and credit buyers accountable. The impact on cities could be enormous. Local organizations are ready. Let’s turn them loose.