Photo of a street lined with trees in Detroit. Photo by Nic Redhead, Flickr CCi

Evidence shows that trees and green spaces in urban areas offer a number of benefits, such as reducing stress and improving air quality. Despite these benefits, many residents of Detroit refused to allow the city to plant trees in front of their houses during a recent city “greening” initiative. An article appearing in CityLab draws from sociological research to demonstrate how a history of government abuses and lack of inclusivity of communities of color in key decisions explains why many Detroiters had this reaction.

Sociologist Dorceta Taylor published a report in 2014, arguing that white environmentalists make environmental justice projects less effective when they assume they know what is good for a neighborhood. By leaving communities of color out of the planning process, they are not able to anticipate or overcome challenges along the way. This proved true in Detroit. A recent article by Christine Carmichael and Maureen McDonough examined the reasons why Black residents resisted the city’s trees. CityLab reports: “It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.”

Carmichael and McDonough found that Black residents were aware of the many benefits of living near trees. However, to some, the trees were a symbol of the city’s unwanted intervention in their lives. Amidst racial tension in the 1960s, the city began clearing trees from Black neighborhoods — ostensibly to combat Dutch elm disease, but some interviewees. Yet, some people believed the city cut down trees to increase police surveillance. This memory triggered their reaction to the modern tree-planting. Carmichael says:

“In this case, the women felt that [after the race rebellion] the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees. … But they felt they should have a choice in this since they’ll be the ones caring for the trees and raking up the leaves when the planters leave. They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.”

This failed initiative in Detroit highlights the social forces that environmental organizations must consider when working in marginalized neighborhoods. Recruiting volunteers and administrators who come from the communities they are serving (something Detroit did not do) could help improve the process. As CityLab reports:

“[E]nvironmental justice is not just about the distribution of bad stuff, like pollution, or good stuff, like forestry projects across disadvantaged communities. It’s also about the distribution of power among communities that have historically only been the subjects and experiments of power structures.”