By Emily Simonitis
The health and well-being of communities are central to PHS’s mission, and trees play a crucial role. A strong, expansive tree canopy (the area of land shaded by trees) is essential to the physical and mental health of communities, especially in urban environments. Tree canopy is beneficial in various ways, cooling high (and potentially harmful) temperatures during the summer in addition to positively impacting mental health. But many neighborhoods in Philadelphia have a low number of trees and limited access to them.
PHS’s Tree Tender program addresses this inequity head-on, engaging communities through local volunteers in the effort to expand the Philadelphia region’s tree canopy, especially in areas with the lowest levels. The Tree Tenders training, offered in both English and Spanish teaches the basics of planting and caring for urban trees. This is the first step to getting involved. When a community sends 3 or more people to the 8-hour, 4-part training they can form a Tree Tenders group. Tree Tenders groups in Philly can apply for free street trees, which includes planting-specific concrete cuts. The groups are given the skills and tools to plant trees and then follow up with care during the initial two-year tree establishment period.
The Tree Tender program has been hard at work this past year planting and caring for trees. Let’s see how two Tree Tenders have been making an impact and inspiring others in their communities along the way.
Samantha Sample was looking to get involved with her community and explore her passion for sustainability when she reached out to her local park to search for environment-based volunteer opportunities. That's when she was referred to the PHS Tree Tenders group in Graduate Hospital. Samantha participated in a spring PHS tree-planting event, where she and a group of about ten other people planted trees around a local apartment complex. The sun was always blaring down on the sidewalk outside the complex, and the street needed some coverage and greenery. So, Samantha and the other Tree Tenders got to work, planting new trees and talking to the property owners about how to care for them.
Tending to the trees became part of Samantha’s routine. Since she lived close by, Samantha checked in and worked on the growing trees once a week, pruning or clearing trash. She even helped put fencing up around the growing trees to protect them from accidental damage.
Samantha says working on the trees has also helped connect her to community and neighborhood members she wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise. Often when she is tending to the trees, people will stop to ask her about the work she’s doing. Samantha loves being able to connect with people and discuss her mission and the program. She believes the trees have added life to the neighborhood, and people she interacts with will comment, “the block really needed it.” Samantha mentioned there are plans in the works to expand the impact by planting trees on the opposite side of the sidewalk!
Samantha reflects fondly on her work as a Tree Tender. It inspired her to get even further involved in her community and learn more about sustainability, recently becoming certified as a sustainable events planner. The Tree Tenders courses offered by PHS gave her the skills to become an urban forest steward in her own neighborhood.
The Tree Tender program would not accomplish amazing feats without the hard-working Tree Leaders behind it. The Tree Leaders are the heart of the program, providing leadership and direction for the urban foresting initiative, working alongside hundreds of tree volunteers.
Susan Kahn has been the Tree Tenders Leader of the Center City West Tree Tending Program for approximately six years. Between soliciting applications for trees, reaching out to homeowners about the positive impact of planting trees, and organizing volunteers for planting, Susan's leadership is improving the tree canopy in her community.
When asked why Susan thinks the Tree Tenders Program is important, and why people are so passionate and deeply involved, Susan referenced the rising environmental awareness and desire for trees to help fight the rising temperatures in our downtown neighborhoods. She thinks more people are becoming aware of climate issues and the important role that trees can play in combating environmental concerns. Susan says, “People really do care about their trees and there is a desire to see more lining their blocks.”
Finally, the Tree Tenders Program creates a sense of community. Susan mentioned post-quarantine and during the pandemic, many people felt socially isolated or without community. Trees not only aid our physical health but create bountiful and deep connections with our community. The Tree Tenders Program gives people the opportunity to meet their neighbors and form essential social connections for years to come!