“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

Detroit is internationally known for being the muscle of American auto manufacturing and the cradle of soul rock, a blend of music that gave us such distinctive voices as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. But there is far more to Motown than the roar of a V8 or the wail of an electric guitar.

Back in the 1950’s, Detroit was known for its urban forests just as much as it was known for being the mecca of American made cars. Trees lined the major roads and thoroughfares of the city forming an unbroken chain of foliage that provided a vibrant contrast to the city’s paved streets and brick and mortar facades. So thick was the foliage that taking a walk down a street felt like walking through a green tunnel, earning Detroit the nickname “The City of Trees”.

Downtown Detroit in Summer 2011

But the city’s famed tree canopy would soon come under threat from an invasive species of fungus called Dutch Elm Disease (DED). This fungus, inadvertently introduced to North America in 1928, slowly kills elm trees by forcing the tree to cut off its supply of nutrients to infected branches.

DED spread throughout the city’s elm trees over the course of three decades, during which time the city continued to expand outwards, occupying more and more areas that were previously forested. The combination of land development and DED reduced the population of elm trees by 500,000 between 1950 and 1980 alone; further exacerbated by a city government that could not afford to replace the trees it lost nor enact programs to curb the spread of DED.

The city’s tree canopy was further devastated when an invasive species of beetle, known as the emerald ash borer, decimated the area’s ash trees. The ash borer’s larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, causing massive damage. The first of these beetles were discovered in the Detroit area in 2002. Over the next ten years they would spread to Canada, New England, and much of the Midwest, destroying entire populations of ash trees in the process. Southeastern Michigan alone lost tens of millions of ash trees.

This massive loss of trees did not go unnoticed by local residents, and seeing that the city couldn’t fix the problem on its own, they began to step up to help re-green Detroit.

The Greening and its volunteers dig in to reforest Detroit

In 1989 Elizabeth Gordan Sachs reached out to local businesses, professionals, and residents to gather support for reforesting the city. Her efforts to greenify the city ultimately led her to found “The Greening of Detroit”, a non-profit organization that brings together a diverse range of individuals, professional organizations and government agencies to restore the city to its formerly green glory.

As you might assume, one of The Greening’s primary activities is tree planting, an activity that helps bring communities together to improve their local environment. Community plantings are primarily done at the behest of members of a particular neighborhood who make a request directly to The Greening. Together, community members and The Greening’s volunteers dig in to spruce (pun intended) up streets and open lands.

The trees planted in these neighborhoods serve more than just an aesthetic purpose; they improve the local environment by reducing air pollution, preventing soil erosion, and providing habitats for wildlife. Not to mention that healthy trees can significantly improve property values, as well as lower crime rates. All these benefits together comprise a concept known as green infrastructure; using natural vegetation and soils to manage water resources and to improve the local environment.

These benefits are doubly effective in riparian areas, where rivers and lands intertwine to form habitats that support species from across the food chain. One of the largest riparian areas in Metro Detroit is the Rouge Park, right on the Rouge River. Last year The Greening planted 4,500 trees in the park alone, significantly improving the landscape and environment of the area.

The Greening’s green infrastructure program also extends to the 114,000 vacant parcels of land spread throughout Detroit. In 2013 The Greening partnered with the Michigan Land Bank, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments to provide green treatments to open lots in the Cody Rouge neighborhood. Together, a pilot program was formed that allowed residents of Cody Rouge to collaborate in order to choose the type of vegetation they wanted in their neighborhood, with choices ranging from trees to prairie grass.

Other neighborhoods have decided to use vacant lots for growing their own food, such as corn, squash, and tomatoes, as part of a growing urban agriculture movement. The Greening has helped foster this movement by partnering with local schools to introduce students to the basics of nutrition and skills needed to cultivate their own gardens. For adults, The Greening offers an apprenticeship education program that gives participants hands-on experience building and maintaining urban farms, as well as teaching them how to get their neighbors involved in sustaining a neighborhood garden.

Outside of their environmental work, The Greening has established an adult workforce development program to help get Detroiters back to work. The program works with chronically unemployed members of the community to cultivate the essential skills and knowledge they need to find a job in the green sector. Enrollees receive training in landscaping, agriculture, and forestry, with the opportunity to become certified through the Landscape Industry Certification exam. The Greening’s program is now a federally-accredited apprenticeship program. So far, they’ve graduated 304 individuals, and more than 80 percent found employment.

There may a long road ahead for Detroit and its ecology, but The Greening of Detroit has shovels in the ground and is working to make the city a greener, healthier urban center. More than 85,000 trees have been planted in its 25 year history; with many more still to come.

Do you want to help reclaim The City of Trees? You can pitch in every Saturday by joining volunteers to plant trees throughout the city. For information or registration, head to Greening of Detroit.