Leaf Litter

Film Reviews: City of Trees & Trees in Trouble

Urban forests serve as more than a backdrop in the documentary films City of Trees and Trees in Trouble. Leaf Litter editor, Amy Nelson, reviews both.

By Amy Nelson, Leaf Litter Editor

Urban trees serve as much more than a backdrop for the films City of Trees and Trees in Trouble. Though the narratives of each documentary differ greatly—one follows the struggles and triumphs of an urban tree—planting/job creation program during the peak of the recession, while the other centers on a city’s battle with an invasive pest-both raise questions about community awareness and engagement that directly relate to the presence and preservation of forest in our cities.

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City of Trees, A Film by Meridian Hill Pictures
The photographs in this review were provided courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures.

In 2010, Washington Parks & People (WPP), a nonprofit dedicated to improving communities by improving parks, received a stimulus grant to create a green jobs training program in communities hit hardest by the recession. The program, known as DC Green Corps, involved hiring and training 150 unemployed residents–many of whom were previously incarcerated-to plant and care for trees in some of the city’s most degraded parks. Beyond providing a paid job for 12 weeks, the program was designed to equip participants with green job skills and a strengthened ability to procure employment. In other words, Green Corps members not only come away from the program knowing how to properly plant a tree, they know how to craft a resume, handle a job interview, and root themselves in stable employment.

The documentary City of Trees picks up the program six months before its two years of funding runs out. The newest Green Corps trainees are about to plant trees in Oxon Run Park, a neglected and deteriorating park located in Ward 8, an area with DC’s highest rate of unemployment. Though City of Trees may seem to have all the makings of a feel-good film—earnest people trying to regenerate economy, ecology, and pride in an underserved neighborhood—you will feel anything but comfortable as you watch it.

City of Trees illustrates that even the most well-conceived, well-intended, and well-funded community enhancement initiative will struggle if it fails to address certain realities of the communities they are designed to help. In City of Trees, these realities are conveyed powerfully through the stories of the people involved in the Green Corps.

Reality #1: The need for employment is dire.

Early in the film, when the camera takes us into the homes of Charles and Michael, we quickly learn how critical their employment is to their survival and to the survival of their families.

With a troubled past and a brother in prison, Charles is keenly aware of the choices that await him if he does not stay employed. His near barren apartment, save for a corner filled with new baby clothes, toys, and a stroller, reveals his greatest priority.

After serving time in a federal prison for drug charges, Michael moved in with his mother, who had to stop working to undergo treatment for cancer. For Michael and his mother, the Green Corps paycheck literally keeps the lights on.

Reality #2: People who face uncertainty throughout their life need certainty when it comes to their income and future. 

As the grant funding dwindles, Steve seems so blinded by the righteousness of the project that he fails to face the fact that the money will run out and the participants’ employment in the program will end. This not only causes tension internally, but wears visibly on the participants.

Later in the film, shortly after Charles is officially informed that his job is ending along with the program, we witness Charles in a painful phone conversation with the mother of his baby. The strain and fear in Charles’ voice, even as he tries to reassure his girlfriend will, and should, unsettle you.

Charles learns about the vulnerability of the program for the first time when it is discussed at a WPP staff meeting and the camera catches an expression on his face which is a painful mix of sadness and hopelessness.

Reality #3: The community you are trying to help probably doesn’t want you there.

WWP and the Green Corps learn this reality rather quickly, as they find their tires slashed on one of their first days of work at Oxon Run Park. In one later scene, Green Corps members describe being threatened by a community member who appeared to be holding a gun.

A particularly cringe-worthy moment in the film comes when Steve and his staff meet with DC’s City Forester, who cringes herself when she sees the site plan. “You got buy in for this?” she asks. “I’ve looked at this area many, many times, and I could never get the community to buy into planting trees here.” It becomes evident that the group has some heavy lifting to do regarding political and community outreach.

Reality #4: Want to get buy-in from the community you are trying to help? Get to know them, listen to them, and involve them EARLY and FREQUENTLY.

The good news is that Reality #3 can go away if you prioritize Reality #4.

Early in the film, Steve boldly rejects the notion of meeting with Ward 8 officials to discuss the tree planting plan. The filmmakers may as well have inserted the “duhn duhn duhn” doom sound effect here, because we know what is coming. Sure enough, Steve and Brian, the WPP outreach coordinator, are soon called to a meeting with the Ward 8 Parks Committee, during which they are told to stop all tree plantings in Oxon Run Park. During their ride home, Brian laments, “We were doing what we wanted to do in the park and letting them know later, and they found that insulting.”

The Deputy Chief of Staff for Ward 8 elaborates on the sentiment behind the community’s resistance, “This community has been abused and used for so long,” she says. “People get all this money to do stuff in Ward 8, but as soon as the money is gone, the program is gone. If your organization is not located in this community, you will be met with a lot of resistance if you don’t include the stakeholders. We don’t have to come to you; you have to come to us.”

Reality #5: You can be really nice, and really smart, but if you are a middle-class white guy trying to rally and inspire African American residents in a struggling community, you might be more successful entrusting that role to someone who actually comes from that community.

As Steve begins to realize this truth, WPP makes the wise decision to hire James, a former Green Corps trainee who was recently laid off and in need of a job. A southeast DC resident, James understands the vibe of the community. Though he struggles to generate interest in tree planting at first, James quickly makes progress. He does his best work on the basketball court, where community members already gather. He asks people what they want in their parks and he listens. He gets them out onto the park trail and learns of their vision for the park. As he gains more knowledge of the community’s needs and concerns, he identifies, and later taps into, their shared desire for respect and for the safety of their families. It isn’t long before the Ward 8 Parks Commission invites WPP back to present at their meeting. This time, the Deputy Chief of Staff warmly welcomes them, introduces them to community members, and encourages residents to get behind the effort.

Reality #6 (and this one’s positive!): Passion and pride are contagious.

Early in the film, Charles says he never knew how much he had to live for until he got his job with the Green Corps. “If they care so much about the earth, why don’t I care as much about myself as they care about planting a tree?”

After his first few days of training, Michael says, “People see us planting trees and cleaning up, and it feels good when someone says, ‘I have respect for you. You’re doing something with yourself.’” Later, with more experience behind him, he contemplates a career in urban forestry and considers becoming an arborist’s apprentice.

When trust is established in Ward 8 and the Green Corps finally has community support, the members of that community get involved. As they plant trees, they appear to feel proud of and empowered by their involvement in improving the park. Finally, the energy WWP has been bringing into Oxon Hill Park begins to ripple.

Trees in Trouble: Saving America’s Urban Forests

Produced by Andrea Torrice, Distributed by Bullfrog Films & Bullfrog Communities

The photographs in this review were provided courtesy of Bullfrog Films

In 2012, a wind storm blew over a 40-foot ash tree in filmmaker Andrea Torrice’s backyard in Cincinnati. Andrea learned that the tree had been weakened because it was infested with the emerald ash borer (EAB) (Agrilus planipennis), a wood-boring beetle native to Russia, China, Japan, and Korea that likely made its way to U.S. in the 1990s in shipping pallets made of ash wood. EAB larvae feed on the important inner bark of ash trees, and unlike trees in the EAB’s homeland, North American ash trees do not contain defensive compounds to keep the pest at bay.

Now considered the most destructive forest pest ever seen in North America, EAB has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees. The more Andrea learned about the invasion of EAB, the more alarmed she became. “I really felt it was being under reported,” she said, “and that it was an important story that needed the public’s attention.”

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis)

Her film Trees in Trouble, does just that. It also presents a compelling look at the impact of EAB–not just on ash trees, but on the people, leaders, and budget of one city: Cincinnati. As the home of our nation’s very first Forestry Congress in 1882, which led to the formation of the American Forestry Association and one of the first reforestation initiatives, Cincinnati makes an interesting choice.

In 2014, the time the film was produced, Cincinnati boasted 85,000 street trees, 5,000 acres of park forest, and an urban tree canopy of 39%. The arrival of the emerald ash borer, however, put the city at risk of losing 20% of that canopy.  The city began preemptive removal of ash trees soon after the insect was first discovered in Michigan, Ohio’s northern neighbor, but by 2008, the EAB had become widespread in Cincinnati. The strategy then shifted to treating trees on high priority streets with pesticides, and removing the bulk of infested trees.

Knowing what was at stake, Dave Gamstetter, Natural resource Manager for the Cincinnati Park Board, requests an additional $100,000 funding from the City Council to deal with the crisis. The film includes footage of that meeting and although Dave’s request is granted, we witness a bit of smug resistance by one council member, and we sense the struggle Dave —and the entire city—is up against. Indeed, we soon learn that the additional funds are nowhere near enough to stem the tide, and months later, the City Council must approve an additional $800,000 to remove the hazardous trees.

Ash-lined street, Toledo, OH, 2006, before EAB

Ash-lined street, Toledo, 2008, after EAB

The devastation wreaked by the half-inch insect was not limited to trees and dollars. The film’s use of before and after photos from other EAB plagued cites of once tree-lined streets turned barren help convey the serious (and often overlooked) impact to shade, energy use, and property values. A particularly alarming segment features Geoffrey Donovan, a USDA Forest Service researcher attempting to quantify the relationship between trees and human health. His seven-year study of 18 states where the EAB has spread revealed that, collectively, those states experienced 15,000 additional deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 additional deaths from lower respiratory problems. “I think of trees as an essential part of our public health infrastructure,” he says, recommending this angle for anyone who is trying to procure funding to address invasive pests.

“At first, I thought, it’s just a bug, not a bit deal,” says City Council Member Wendell Young, who ultimately champions the cause, “I did not understand the seriousness of this invasion, and I did not understand that our trees are defenseless.”

The cost of defending Cincinnati’s trees? By 2015, it had grown to an estimated $37 Million. The film makes it clear that cities grappling with invasive pests and diseases must unexpectedly spend a lot of money on tree care. A community forestry consultant featured in the film estimates the cost of removing a 20” diameter, 40-feet tall tree at $1000, and reveals that the cost of managing the damage from invasive pests nationally has cost municipalities over $2 billion. That leaves very little money for replacing damaged trees.

This is where the film shifts in tone from doomed to hopeful, as Cincinnati’s civic groups, schools, businesses, and nonprofit organizations step in and take action. A montage of scenes shows a wide range of people and neighborhoods engaged in tree planting and care throughout the city.

The film ends with a reminder that in our globalized world, there will only be more invasive threats to urban trees. Trees in Trouble calls for a variety of solutions: increasing shipping inspections, improving tree ordinances, enhancing tree diversity, training arborists and homeowners in early detection, and developing protection plans well in advance.

The film’s final words come from Wendell Young, “the warning has been sounded, we simply need to take note and be prepared.”

A screening of Trees in Trouble would be a powerful first step in that preparation. To arrange a screening, contact Bullfrog Communities.

Funding for Trees in Trouble comes from the Ohio Humanities Council, the Stephen H. Wilder Foundation, the Craig Young Family Foundation and the TREE Fund. The project was supported by the Media Working Group, the Center for Independent Documentary, and the School of Art, University of Cincinnati.

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