The Forest For the Trees

What can the individual do in the face of climate change? Common answers to this question generally fall into two categories. The first can be broadly called advocacy—the United Nations Environmental Programme, for example, has a list of “9 Things You Can Do Now” to fight climate change. Every item on the list essentially recommends the same thing: “ask your city officials to…” and “urge your government to…” and “remind political leaders to…” and “ask your government to…” and “write a letter…” and “use your voice…” and “remind your government…” 

The other category is what I will call austerity. The Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, a center for studying climate change and the environment, has also issued a list of “9 things you can do about climate change.” They include: “eat less meat and dairy,” “cut back on flying,” “leave the car at home,” “reduce your energy use, and bills,” and “cut consumption—and waste.” These are, of course, worthwhile endeavors. But the language they use is one of reduction.

The two best things individuals can do are beg not to die, and then accept having, wanting, and living with less. The familiar refrain here is that one person taking these actions isn’t going to change the world, but that, somehow, that one person will cause a domino effect and inspire others to do the same. But what does that look like? How can one person reach their community, let alone the whole world, in this era of increasing social alienation? How do we look past helpless austerity and start finding other ways of taking things into our own hands? To answer these questions, I looked  to a group of urban foresters operating right here in New Haven. 

 The Urban Resources Initiative, which operates out of Yale School of the Environment-owned offices at 301 Prospect Street, has been run as a public-private partnership since the 1990s. It’s a tight-knit group: there are only five year-round employees. The whole business is overseen by Chris Ozyck, who also runs a landscaping business (you know, on the side). The URI runs two main programs: the Community Greenspace program, which operates in the summer, and the year-round Green Skills program. 

Community Greenspace is staffed primarily by summer interns and New Haven community volunteers. I talked to one of those interns, Claire St. Peter (DC ’24), to learn more. The process is simple. “A community group has to apply for a microgrant of a few thousand dollars and state an environmental restoration or stewardship project,” Claire told me. URI encourages community-building, so each project application requires “five different people who can’t be from the same household.” Claire worked with several of these sites, including one on Orchard Street, which is overseen by Newhallville resident Lenora Turner, also known as Lil Mama. In 2021, Alder Honda Smith led the reopening of The Shack, an intergenerational community center and vegetable garden, which is also funded in part by URI. 

But URI’s real claim to fame, or at least what I first knew them for, is their tree-planting. Claire confirmed my hunch: “that is definitely what the community in New Haven knows URI for, because they’ve planted over 10,000 trees since the time of the Green Skills program.” That means URI has planted nearly 2 trees a day every day for 17 years. 

Green Skills is the other program under the umbrella of URI. In contrast to Community Greenspace, Green Skills is staffed primarily by New Haven Public Schools students and through URI’s partnership with EMERGE Connecticut, a non-profit organization that provides jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals. 

The idea is to increase tree cover in areas with large impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt. Lack of tree canopy and green space can lead to higher energy costs and increased risk of heat stroke due to higher surface temperatures in the summer. This is a problem because, as Claire told me, “race is actually the single biggest determinant of where there’s tree canopy. Temperatures in East Rock are markedly lower in the summer than in Newhallville.” This tree-planting, then, is the main way URI seeks to fight climate change: by mitigating its effects on the most vulnerable residents. 

My story was written: community group plants trees to undo the effects of environmental racism. But Claire showed me there was much more to URI. She told me about a tree-planting event at The Shack last summer, coordinated by Alder Smith: “We did a cherry blossom there in a little strip in front of the parking lot. We involved a freaking giant construction digger thing, this huge motorized thing.” The planting itself only happened after several weeks of preparing the site by clearing out boulders—I’m told the process involved several people using something called a “ball carrier” to move the 300-pound ball containing the roots of the cherry tree. In the summer heat, I can only imagine sweat stinging eyes and quaking biceps in tank tops. It was, Claire asserted, her “most rewarding work day by far. It was intense but cool. Planting a tree feels joyous, powerful, fulfilling, alive, inspired. Connected.”

When I asked what she meant, Claire told me another story—she was full of them. “The benefits,” said Claire, “are less so environmental and more so providing community and reducing the barriers to green space.” A young child named Kenny, who came in as part of the local boxing club’s recruitment effort, worked with Claire at the 333 Orchard Street site. At the end of the summer, Kenny came to Claire and asked how he could get more involved in the planting. That’s what URI is really all about, Claire said. “Connecting the younger Kennys with the Lil Mamas. It’s community empowerment with the added bonus of more tree canopy.”

Though URI represents a middle ground between strictly individual action and action on a governmental or corporate scale, we can’t pin all our climate hopes on it. But maybe it can give us a model for how to think about the climate crisis. The lesson of URI is that we need more training grounds for learning how to work together. Think about all of those actions UNEP and the Grantham Institute ask you, the individual, to take. How much more powerful would they be if we changed the unit of action from the individual to the communal? Don’t call your representative. Call your neighbor.

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