Why Detroit’s Plan to Reforest its Streets Ran into Roadblocks

A landmark report conducted by University of Michigan environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor in 2014 warned of the “arrogance” of white environmentalists when they introduce green initiatives to black and brown communities. One black environmental professional Taylor interviewed for the report, Elliot Payne, described experiences where green groups “presumed to know what’s best” for communities of color without including them in the decision-making and planning processes.

“I think a lot of the times it stems from the approach of oh we just go out and offer tree plantings or engaging in an outdoor activity, and if we just reach out to them they will come,” Payne told Taylor.

In fact, this is exactly what was happening in Detroit at the time that Taylor’s report came out. In 2014, the city was a few years deep into a campaign to reforest its streets after decades of neglecting to maintain its depleted tree canopy. A local environmental non-profit called The Greening of Detroit was the city’s official partner for carrying out that reforesting task, which it had started doing on its own when it was founded in 1989. By 2014, TGD had received additional funding to ramp up its tree-planting services to the tune of 1,000 to 5,000 new trees per year. To meet that goal, it had to penetrate neighborhoods somewhat more aggressively than it had in the past and win more buy-in from the residents.

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