Participants in Duwamish Valley Youth Corps plant trees in South Park neighborhood of Seattle

Long known as the Emerald City, Seattle has struggled to maintain its famous tree cover under the pressure of rapid growth. The city’s most recent Tree Canopy Assessment revealed a disappointing statistic — white, wealthy neighborhoods are more likely to have trees lining their streets than their poor, nonwhite counterparts.

Now, teenagers are doing something about it.

Benefits of Trees

It’s not just a matter of pretty landscaping. Decades of research confirms that exposure to green space significantly enhances the quality of life for urban dwellers. Trees and vegetation can dampen ambient noise, improve air quality, cool over-heated urban centers, and even reduce crime. Studies show a link between nature and healing. Among city residents with similar incomes, those who live near green space have lower levels of illness and disease. Contact with nature improves cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development in children.

Duwamish Valley Youth Corps

Surrounded by highways, industrial land, and the Superfund-designated Duwamish River, South Park is a low-income Seattle neighborhood. Its population skews young, with 30 percent of the population under the age of 18. In addition to the threat of gang violence, youth in this neighborhood face disadvantages that range from insecure housing to the highest rates of asthma in the city.

Presenting youth an alternative to joining gangs, the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps pays kids to learn about the environment, clean up pollution in the Duwamish, and plant trees. Youth who have completed the program often opt to repeat it and use what they have learned from the program to become community leaders working for environmental justice.

Watch a short video by The Seattle Times about the Youth Corps South Park tree-planting project.

Youth Urban Forestry Programs

Gardening programs for youth in cities around the country — LA, Denver, Detroit, Boston — have received more attention than urban forestry programs. Produce gardens have the obvious advantage of teaching nutrition and improving food security. But the benefits of urban forestry programs are not trivial. Programs like the one in Seattle provide participants with both meals and stipends. This encourages regular attendance, which helps kids establish routines and learn good work habits.

In the process of planting over 15,000 trees in Oakland, California, Urban Releaf has helped schools incorporate hands-on forestry activities into their curriculum. They train youth to become International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborists. The Green Teens program in San Francisco goes beyond pruning and tree care. The San Francisco program includes workshops on resume writing, interviewing, and financial literacy. The Toronto-based Young Urban Forest Leaders Program is designed to improve the representation of women in the forestry industry by providing hands-on urban forestry and community engagement experience to young women and non-binary people.

This six-minute video by the Bay Area Video Coalition provides more information about the Green Teens program, sponsored by  San Francisco nonprofit, Friends of The Urban Forest.

Adult Action

The measurable benefits to teens who participate in urban forestry projects are numerous. Often the most important changes are impossible to measure. Despite the benefits, most youth forestry programs are starved for funding and desperately in need of volunteers. In addition to supporting youth forestry programs, adults can help spread the benefits of urban trees by participating in reforestation efforts at home and around the world.

Feature image: Participants in Duwamish Valley Youth Corps plant trees in South Park neighborhood of Seattle. Credit: The Seattle Times

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.