(Japanese Cherry Trees like this one decorate many a front yard and the National Mall in Washington, DC)

Who would not want a tree in their yard? They’re beautiful, offer shade in warmer seasons, and provide homes for birds, squirrels, and other animals. Some trees can be climbed, while others are perfect to sit under for a picnic or a bit of reading. One of the greatest things about trees is that they’re perfectly happy to be left alone to thrive.

Community Revitalization Project: Plant a Tree

A tree’s contented solitude is one of the things we find appealing about planting trees as a strategy for reusing or improving vacant lots and land.

“Reuse” in this context means taking land once used for one purpose and repurposing it for something new and different. Imagine, for example, a parcel that had a house. The house became dilapidated and had to be condemned and torn down, leaving a vacant lot in its wake. Given the cost of construction, sales prices, and market demand, it may be unlikely for someone to build a new house on the lot. Many cities and towns have vacant lots like this and it’s a major challenge. So how can trees help?

Trees are a passive form of reuse, as compared to a lawn that needs to be cut every couple of weeks, a labor-intensive community garden, or building permanent infrastructure such as a new pocket park. Certainly, the returns you can get from a garden or park are different from a stand of trees, but for cities with tighter budget constraints they can be the perfect option.

Consider community gardens, which are often promoted for reuse of vacant lots. A garden is labor-intensive, requires extensive planning and in some cases, security and monitoring to get it going and keep it going. Those are the negatives. The upside is that a garden is often a great vehicle for community revitalization and empowerment. They become sources of community pride and serve as neighborhood anchors. If programmed, they offer a place to teach and learn about plants and planting, food nutrition, and much more. These positive returns are well worth the investment on the front end.

The Benefits of Trees

A lot planted with trees offer a similar type of positive return to community gardens. Whether because trees grow more slowly or require less human interaction, we don’t hear nearly as often about planting an urban forest. But a lot planted with a tree or several strategically placed trees offer wonderful benefits.

Their shade offers a place to hold small community meetings and gatherings. If they are smaller trees, kids can climb in them and play around them. Several lots in a neighborhood planted with trees can be used for community education or walks, hosting place-making opportunities, or other community-building activities. Trees also clean the air of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, help clean and anchor the soil, absorb water that might otherwise flood nearby properties, and supply shade that keeps homes cooler in the summer.

Lastly, compare a lot with a tree to a vacant lot with grass. Someone needs to cut the grass every couple of weeks or it can become overgrown. If a lot is not fenced, people might park or abandon cars on it. Vacant lots often attract trash and debris, as a magnet attracts iron shavings. A vacant lot is cheap on the front end, but not without real costs.

Time to Get Planting!

Planting trees can be a fun community revitalization activity or spring cleaning event, and earth-friendly holidays like Earth Day and Arbor Day are also great opportunities to find people looking to volunteer for this kind of work. Plan an event, connect with interested community members, and start planting!

Your efforts to revitalize neighborhoods will thank you. So let’s hear it for the humble tree!