The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Pioneering an Innovative Approach to Urban Greening

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary defines innovation as, “The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.” Essentially, innovation means new.

In today’s world  -- a digital, globalized, interconnected world --  we’ve collectively tacked on a corollary to the definition of innovation to include some kind of applicable benefit or new solution to the various challenges and obstacles we currently face. Colloquially, innovation has come to mean change for the better.

How do we reconcile this meaning with our own intuition? When warnings from scientists, politicians, and pundits of the impending and irreversible dangers of climate change dominate headlines and social media feeds, what can we as individuals do to combat these worldwide issues?

"There are 26 Gateway Cities that are getting these trees. Our results are going to change the way they spend that money more effectively and strategically."


Planting more trees seems like a reasonable place to start, especially in cities. This is known as urban greening, though the exact meaning of urban greening can sometimes be left up to interpretation.

“I always make a point to clearly define urban greening because there are many related but different concepts circulating in popular and scholarly discourse such as sustainable cities and green cities” said Theodore Eisenman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at UMass Amherst. He defines urban greening as “a social practice characterized by organized or semi-organized efforts to introduce, conserve, or maintain outdoor vegetation in urban areas.”

Tree planting initiatives in cities fall under this umbrella term of urban greening, which also includes incorporation of vegetated roofs and walls, rainwater gardens for stormwater management, as well as parks. As Eisenman notes, there’s a strong social component to greening. Tree planting, for example, is by definition a social practice; and the act of planting trees can give individuals a sense of taking action, tangible evidence of their contribution to the greater good. It’s innovation on a personal scale.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) created the Greening the Gateway Cities Program (GGCP) in 2013 with a goal of increasing tree canopy 5%–10% in targeted neighborhoods. Gateway Cities include municipalities with a population between 35,000 and 250,000 and median household income and rate of educational attainment of a bachelor's degree or above below the state average. They tend to be former industrial hubs, places like Holyoke, Springfield, and Pittsfield in Western Mass.; Lowell, Lawrence, and Brockton in Eastern Mass. Tree planting can not only enhance the aesthetics of these cityscapes and generate human health and wellbeing benefits associated with reduced stress, it may also help to cool urban landscape and offset energy usage for heating and cooling.

Urban Greening Research in Holyoke

Ben Breger was working at a tree nursery in Amherst when he found out about the GGCP initiative. His nursery contributed to the supply of trees being loaded up on trucks and shipped for planting. “Where are all these trees going?” asked Breger, a first-year master’s student in landscape architecture at the time. “As I learned more about the initiative and became aware of Professor Eisenman’s interest in urban greening, I realized there was potential to carry out empirical research on an ongoing tree planting program.”

In 2017, Breger, Eisenman, and undergraduate Honors College student Madison “Sonny” Kremer, crafted a mixed-methods case study of the 2014–2016 tree planting in Holyoke – the first city to participate in the GGCP – to investigate the relationship between stewardship and tree survival. Urban tree planting is typically a locally managed affair, and the interaction between municipal and state government made this case study unique. Moreover, inventories of tree survival tend to focus on biophysical factors such as planting condition, species type, and climate, and a mixed-methods approach that also incorporated social science assessment of the stewardship network made this study somewhat novel.

Ben Breger (left) and Sonny Kremer (right)

To support Breger’s inventory of the trees themselves, he won a Garden Club of America/Casey Trees Zone VI Fellowship in Urban Forestry. Together with collaborators at the Clark University Human-Environment Regional Observatory, Breger examined the vigor and survival of 759 trees including characteristics such as width, height, and leaf color, while Kremer interviewed 15 individuals from 10 stakeholder groups including local, municipal, and state actors. “There are 26 Gateway Cities that are getting these trees. Our results are going to change the way they spend that money more effectively and strategically,” said Kremer, whose research on this project supported her senior thesis chaired by Eisenman.

It was a logistical undertaking critical to understanding the respective roles that DCR and other stakeholders had in planting and maintaining the trees, and how their roles evolved over time. “Learning about how the State DCR juggled outreach, permitting, tree sourcing, planting, watering, mulching, and follow-up communications, while also managing a dozen crew members was very impressive,” said Breger. “When all you see are the newly-planted trees in the ground, it's hard to understand all the effort that went into making that possible but through this research I came to understand and appreciate the entire operation.”

The Importance of Stewardship

The team published their findings in the July 2019 issue of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening with Breger as the lead author of the article, titled “Urban Tree Survival and Stewardship in a State-Managed Planting Initiative; A Case Study in Holyoke, Massachusetts.” Their conclusion is deceptively simple: “Stewardship is essential for ensuring urban tree survival, achieving environmental and social benefits associated with canopy cover goals, and gaining public acceptance for future planting projects… Urban tree planting programs may see higher survival if they plan for and fund maintenance of newly-planted trees in coordination with municipal government, NGOs, and other local actors.”

But stewardship can be a difficult job. Simply planting a tree is not the endgame. Who cares for the tree? Do they have the necessary resources? How do climate stressors like drought factor into stewardship and tree survival?

Theodore Eisenman, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture

At the outset of the GGCP in Holyoke, it was determined that DCR would plant trees with community outreach support from the City of Holyoke and local organizations. Then the Holyoke Department of Public Works (DPW) would assume responsibility for watering and long-term care of trees on city property, while local recipients would do the same for trees planted on their property.

But after the first year of planting, the DPW “could not, or would not” uphold this responsibility. It also withdrew from plans to increase planting in public spaces. This was likely due to a couple of factors: it did not have the resources or labor force necessary to sustain the endeavor; and the limited resources at its disposal were focused on managing existing trees.

Fellow stakeholders grew concerned about the survival of recently planted trees in Holyoke, and stewardship increasingly came under the watch of DCR, who used watering trucks to irrigate trees along streets. Ultimately, these trees were roughly five times more likely to survive than those managed by local partners in landscapes that were not accessible to DCR’s watering trucks.

The role of different stewards was especially pronounced in summer 2016, when the region experienced drought. “The drought impact was significant and pronounced for trees stewarded by tree recipients but muted for trees stewarded by DCR, suggesting that DCR’s watering efforts effectively overcame the vulnerability brought on by drought,” said the authors.

The idea of stewardship is more nuanced than simply placing urban greening in the hands of the government agency with the most staff and resources. There should be clear communication between stakeholders but also with staff and grounds crews; institutional capacity for caregiving, organizing, and funding; and plans for contingencies and emergencies. “Ultimately, this study shows that urban greening initiatives need to invest in the social infrastructure that supports the green infrastructure,” said Eisenman.

It should be noted that trees planted in other GGCP cities have fared quite well. Colleagues at Clark University inventoried tree plantings in Chicopee, Fall River, Leominster, and Pittsfield and found survival rates averaging over 90% in these cities. This is great news for the GGCP, and bodes well for generating the many social and environmental benefits that urban trees can provide.