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Green spaces in underserved areas help build community

Studies show planting trees fosters a sense of community and civic pride, especially in areas that have been historically underinvested.
Green spaces in underserved areas help build community
Posted at 4:43 PM, Nov 07, 2023

In Angelica Velazquez's store, she can be hard to spot amidst the beads, hangers, and racks of clothing she sells. Her store, La Casa de la Cobija, has been her base to advocate for her community in Grand Rapids, Michigan

"The neighborhood is like a family," Velazquez said. "We know exactly who lives next to my door or across the street."

Velazquez has pushed against attempts to gentrify her neighborhood — and in favor of attempts to beautify it.

It's how she's connected, on this day, to the planting of trees four miles north.

Lauren Davis runs programs for the nonprofit Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Over 15 years, they've planted 8,000 trees, thanks to 30,000 hours of work by local volunteers. On this day, they're planting downtown.

"On average, in Grand Rapids a treed versus non-treed neighborhood makes about eight degrees difference," said Davis. "It's eight degrees cooler in an area with 40% canopy or more. I mean, we have that data."

When they plant trees downtown, the city pays for it. With the money left over, they head to communities like that of Velazquez. A two-minute drive from Velazquez's store is a nearby park that held few trees until Davis' team planted them. They spent a year building a plan with her community to plant 250 trees in her neighborhood. 

"This neighborhood isn't starting at the same spot as other neighborhoods," said Davis. "You know, any neighborhood that's been historically disinvested, it's like they're not starting at zero. They're starting behind. You need to be having those conversations. And historically, cities are not great at that." 

It's Davis' team's mission to plant trees and create green space. When they came to her neighborhood, it was Velazquez's job to take on that mission, with the question that always weighs on her mind about her community.

"I don't want to leave Grand Rapids," she said, choked up. "But it does happen."

She's talking about gentrification. Studies have found modest associations between green space growth and gentrification trends. It's the constant challenge: how to improve underserved communities without pricing out those who live there.

The trees in her community don't come with ways to prevent displacement. But Velazquez still finds them essential. From her store, she's fought for bank funding for minority businesses and equity in Grand Rapids schools. For her, adding beauty, adding shade, and adding trees is adding a better quality of life.

"Every time when we put more one more tree, this is more hope," Velazquez said. "More hope."

SEE MORE: Southern California group is planting trees to beat the heat

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