Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy

By Mell, Ian | The Town Planning Review, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy


Mell, Ian, The Town Planning Review


Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy, Dana R. Fisher, Erika S. Svendsen and James Connolly, New York, Routledge, 2015, 132 pp., £90.00 ISBN 978-04157-2363-3

For many years the environmental movement has questioned how it can engage stakeholders in campaigns in both the short and long term (Benedict and McMahon, 2006). Fischer, Svenden and Connolly's book explores this issue in New York reflecting on a survey of participants involved with the MillionTreesNYC programme. This monograph asks how this programme engaged the city's population, whether there was an identifiable demographic profile of participants and if these stakeholders had continued to engage with environmental projects in the long term. To contextualise these discussions the authors outline a historical narrative of environmental stewardship in the USA, and how New York compares with wider national profiles of engagement. Their aim throughout is to highlight the impact that communal bonds with local landscapes, as well as socioeconomic and political barriers, have on people's long-term participation in environmental projects.

To place the discussions of New York in context, the book's early chapters trace the development of environmental engagement, noting that Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver have all used tree planting (and other landscape issues) as a focal point to generate engagement and promote environmental awareness campaigns (Young, 2011; Philadelphia Water Department, 2011). In part this reflects the authors' promotion of a parallel discussion of 'hybrid government', where the government of urban landscapes by city officials and the governance of projects and social movements by citizens are significantly different. Where trees are concerned, the creation, maintenance and functionality of urban forestry is proposed as a key environmental resource that bridges these two positions (Benedict and McMahon, 2006). The development of such greener, more accessible and sustainable places which utilise urban forests and tree planting have been used by several city Mayors across the USA to promote investment. From a community perspective, the planting of trees is seen as 'part of a pattern of human behaviour that persists across many landscapes and cultures' (p. 69). Moreover, in the post- Bruntland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) era, ecological drivers have become increasingly used as city branding exercises. New York has been one of the most successful proponents of this process as under Michael Bloomberg's leadership the city made significant policy changes to highlight the liveability of New York and facilitate investment (Austin, 2014; New York City Environmental Protection, 2010).

The authors then move on to their analysis of the MillionTreesNYC programme. They note that the participants do not fit the normal profile of stakeholders at a national level in the USA nor represent a cross-section of New York's population. Alternatively, they argue that participants are more highly educated, Caucasian and female compared with the city's population. …

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