Magazine article American Forests

Seeds of Change in the Nation's Capital: How Two Simple Images, Juxtaposed Side by Side, Started a Local Revolution in the Heart of Washington, D.C

Magazine article American Forests

Seeds of Change in the Nation's Capital: How Two Simple Images, Juxtaposed Side by Side, Started a Local Revolution in the Heart of Washington, D.C

Article excerpt

"DC is on the list!" (Monroe Street Market)

"DC is proud to be named one of the 10 Best Cities for #Urban Forests by @AmericanForests! via@USATODAY" (DDOT DC).

"Congrats to #DC for making @americanforests' list of 10 Best Cities for Urban Forests" (Plant More Plants)

When American Forests named Washington, D.C. one of the 10 Best Cities for Urban Forests in 2013, residents were quick to tweet their pride. With the famous National Mall supporting 17,000 trees; the nation's first urban park, Rock Creek Park; and more than 7,000 acres of parkland, D.C. earned its place on the list without breaking a sweat.

But it wasn't always this way. The District of Columbia of the 1990s was suffering from a quarter century of profound disinvestment, following the national trend of shifting economies to suburban locales. In a city also reeling from a crack epidemic and an annual murder rate nearly five times what it is today, the tree canopy had fallen by the wayside as a priority.

The revolution that would turn the urban forest's fate around began when two images made the front page of The Washington Post's Metro section in 1999. One was a satellite image of Washington, D.C.'s tree canopy in 1973, the other in 1997. Both were from a study American Forests had conducted of the District's tree canopy. The story needed no words: From the perspective of the 30-meter resolution available at the time, one image was predominantly green, the other looked like a tornado had ripped through a majority of the nation's capital.

That story in the Post sparked a citywide conversation about what priorities residents value and the type of city they felt the nation's capital should be.

The timing was right. In the years leading up to the Post article, a body of intriguing research had begun to emerge about the relationship between people and vegetation. Long thought to be extraneous window dressing for communities that could afford to care about such niceties, the role of nature in cities began to come into greater focus. It was already well known that vegetation is critical to keeping all the trash and toxins swept up in rain and snow melt from pouring into our waterways; it was also well established how critical vegetation is to catching particulate matter and absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise enter our lungs and atmosphere. But in the late 90s, a new realm of more abstract understanding was coming into focus. All else being equal, urban landscapes with trees had been shown to significantly reduce crime and domestic violence rates. Hospital patients with a view of nature from their rooms recovered 48 percent faster after surgery. Obesity rates, energy bills and symptoms of attention deficit disorder have proven to be lower. Property values and student grades, when interacting with nature on a daily basis, have proven to be higher.

Urban forestry professionals can regurgitate such findings in their sleep today--there's not one of us who hasn't had to pull a handy stat out at a community meeting or policy hearing--but at the time, these concepts were groundbreaking. They revealed a deep connection between nature, society and psychology that few had realized existed. Suddenly, urban forests were part of the conversation about substantive socioeconomic matters and trees became more than just pretty window dressing.


There were, of course, already organizations that had been working for years in Washington, D.C., intuitively using nature as a tool for empowering the most disenfranchised residents. Washington Parks and People, for example, took it upon themselves when no one else would--not even the federal government who owned the land--to engage the local community in reclaiming and restoring parks such as the Italian-inspired Meridian Hill Park in Northwest D.C. and Marvin Gaye Park, named for the local music legend, in the Northeast quadrant. …

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