LARP students research success of tree planting program in Holyoke, MA

From left: Ben Breger and Sonny Kremer / Photo Credit: Matthew Medeiros From left: Ben Breger and Sonny Kremer / Photo Credit: Matthew Medeiros
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

-- By Matthew Medeiros for the UMass Amherst College of Social & Behavioral Sciences

Ben Breger (MLA ‘18) and Sonny Kremer (Sustainable Community Development ‘18) spent their summer researching urban trees, but what they remember most is their interactions with people they met and collaborated with along the way. The students worked on individual research projects in Holyoke, MA related to the Greening the Gateway Cities Program (GGCP), an effort focused on planting thousands of trees in 12 communities in the state. The GGCP locations are part of a larger group of 26 communities targeted by the state government for redevelopment efforts as “Gateway Cities.” Planting these trees is intended to make participating communities more livable and sustainable.

“The relationship is reciprocal; urban trees require stewardship from humans to reach maturity and when they do so, provide us with a suite of benefits,” explains Breger. His project consists of a survey of the 1,500 trees planted in Holyoke since the GGCP began in 2013. Over the course of May and June, Breger visited each tree and collected information on their health, age, location, species, and conditions around the tree that might impact health—such as available soil area. He received a $5,000 Garden Club of America Zone VI Fellowship in Urban Forestry for this project.

“I’m immensely grateful to the Garden Club of America and Casey Trees for their support. I’m glad to know there are organizations which support the advancement of urban forestry,” he says.

“I was the recipient of many curious stares as I measured trees throughout the city, but my most notable memories have been my impromptu meetings with residents and business owners who explain why they requested trees or how the new tree on the street outside their property positively impacts them each day,” Breger explains.

Beyond residents, he and Kremer met many other collaborators as they worked together on their own parallel projects. The pair also worked with ecologists at the US Forest Service, foresters with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and members of the Human-Environment Regional Observatory (HERO) team at Clark University.   

“I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with incredible people. I am constantly surprised at how large yet familiar the ‘treesearch’ community is, and happy to find so many others with similar and different perspectives,” notes Kremer.

Her project examines how people contribute to a tree’s survival in the challenging ecosystem of a city.

“Tree survival research currently focuses mostly on biophysical factors. We theorize, however, that social factors, especially stewardship networks, may be critical for long-term tree survival in cities,” says Kremer. Her research required many hours of meeting with organizations involved in tree care in Holyoke, as well as interviewing residents in the neighborhoods where new trees were planted.

“The interviews I’ve conducted have been really incredible. Everyone has opened up my perspective on trees, giving me immense hope that people want and care about urban trees, and reinforcing that we can and should do more to ensure that people have access to green and healthy urban landscapes.”

Kremer drew financial support from several sources, including a $2,000 Alan L. and Carol S. LeBovidge Undergraduate Research Scholarship, as well as scholarships from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning and Commonwealth Honors College. 

In addition to scholarships, both Breger and Kremer credit Assistant Professor Theodore Eisenman as a strong ally and inspiration for their projects.

“The support Theo Eisenman provided me was tremendously important. His passion for the study of ‘urban greening’ and his belief in my abilities propelled this project forward,” says Breger. Kremer adds that her interest in urban trees came about through taking Eisenman’s Urban Greening Theory and Practice course during Fall 2016.

“It has been an absolute joy working with Sonny and Ben,” said Eisenman. “Not only are they excellent scholars; they are also thoughtful people who care deeply about the communities that urban greening serves.”

The pair are just beginning their analysis of the summer’s field work in Holyoke, and expect to present their conclusions at the end of the academic year.

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