Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands.
Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands. Courtesy of Karen Bell

Recently Deb Fallows kicked off a series of “Big Little Ideas”—innovations or reforms that could be applied fairly easily at the local level and that might have cumulatively very important effect.

(Thanks to many readers who have written in. We’ll be sharing some of the many suggestions that have arrived.)

Here’s another in the series: making it easy to plant large numbers of trees, city-by-city.

In an article in the October issue of the magazine, I cite recent findings that tree-planting matters more than many people suspect, in its potential climate impacts. The story said:

After Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, more than 400 U.S. mayors, representing most of the U.S. economy, said their communities would still adhere to it. “That is where most of the leverage lies on sustainability—with mayors and governors,” Morley Winograd told me.

He gave the example of planting trees, which might sound insignificant but, according to a new study by researchers in Switzerland, could be a crucial step toward removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “This could spread city by city, state by state, with no federal involvement or limitation,” he said.


The tree-planting movement has gained surprising momentum. For example, check out this report from Louisville, on its ambitious “Green Heart” project to assess the impact of urban green space. Or this, from Tulsa, about the difference its “Up With Trees” program has made. Or the “Greenprinting” map tool, from the Trust for Public Land. Or the MTree tool.

More tree-planting in Redlands, Ca. (Courtesy of Karen Bell.)

For now, here’s an illustration of one community taking an innovative step. This story has three bonus reactions for attracting my attention.

First, the community in question is my original homeland, the small inland-California community of Redlands, in San Bernardino County.

Second, the tree-planting initiative is of a variety often mocked in the nation’s capital but of growing importance at the community level: namely, a “public-private partnership.” It’s a collaboration involving a private company (the mapping firm Esri); a local university (the University of Redlands); and the community’s public schools (of which I am an alum).

Third, the news is reported by a new local publication, the Redlands Community News, which fits the pattern I have reported on from Maine and Mississippi and Massachusetts, in offsetting the pernicious effect of private-equity control of local newspapers. (More reports are coming on this local-journalism theme, from Michigan and Tennessee and Massachusetts and beyond.)


It’s an idea with a history: Arbor Day planting ceremony, New York City Public Schools, in 1908. (Bain News Service, via Library of Congress.)

One of our good friends in Redlands, Shelli Stockton of the University of Redlands, explains the idea. The reason for spelling this out is the possible application in cities elsewhere:

Idea:

Increase the awareness of the benefits of trees through education and give away trees to plant. Redlands’ specific project involves presentations at school assemblies, providing each elementary student in our city a tree to plant, and mapping and measuring the results with GIS [online maps, like those developed by Esri in Redlands].

The project will take place in April 2020 in honor of the 50th worldwide Earth Day celebration. Approximately 12,000 trees will be distributed.

How It’s Done:

Identify key partners in the project, including a funder to pay for the trees, an audience with whom to communicate and distribute the trees, and a person(s) to organize the project. In our case the players are:

  • Funder: a local company with an interest in the environment and climate change issues
  • Audience: the local school district and private schools
  • Organizer: the local university

How This Works Locally:

Redlands has been named a Tree City USA Community  by the Arbor Day Foundation for 22 years. It has a volunteer-led city Street Tree Committee who assist city staff in overseeing issues regarding the city’s urban forest … There was even a project to plant trees in honor of a nine-year-old girl who died of leukemia.

The University of Redlands is also 10 consecutive year Tree Campus USA school and has more than 4500 trees on its 160-acre campus.

It’s a medium-scale idea with potentially very large effects. And of course planting trees is only the first step: they need to be watered, tended, cared for. But it’s an important start, which other communities could consider. And please continue to write in, at OurTowns@TheAtlantic.com, with more suggestions.