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Trees and Trails: Rooted in Community

By Marshall Pearson

Neighborhoods in large cities are constantly evolving. Railroads and industrial zones often shut down or shift, leaving empty infrastructure like ghost towns in the heart of urban communities. Many of these factories and transportation arteries were once the pulse of a region but no longer support the surrounding communities. Yet for the past couple decades, rail-trails and greenways have begun reclaiming these neglected spaces, pumping new life and activity into quiet corridors.

In Washington, D.C., part of that reclamation process has involved reintroducing trees to areas once buried under concrete and lost to the public. One organization, in particular, has been actively working to develop the bond between trees and urban pathways, helping transform industrial decay into greener pastures—or trails—for nearby communities.

Founded in 2002, Casey Trees is a nonprofit that has been working to restore the tree canopy of the District of Columbia. The organization conducts street-level surveys of existing soil and landscaping conditions, as well as consults satellite images to identify areas where trees are most needed and could grow successfully. As a grassroots and community-based organization, Casey Trees relies heavily on volunteers to plant trees, perform maintenance on existing projects and conduct workshops that encourage proper tree care. Casey Trees has partnered with many developers, universities and other community groups to promote tree maintenance and the improvement of growing conditions—all throughout the District. They work with more than 50 groups each year and have executed hundreds of projects in all eight wards since 2003, including planting more than 400 trees last fall alone.

© Casey Trees
Casey Trees works with more than 50 groups each
year for tree-planting initiatives.

One of its big projects this past year involved a tree-planting initiative on the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT). The eight-mile, paved MBT—partly off road, partly on—extends from Union Station through Takoma Park, Md., and into Silver Spring, Md., all while sharing an active corridor with the Metro's Red Line, Amtrak and other rail lines. From the trail, users can easily access many neighborhoods, including Edgewood, NoMa (north of Massachusetts Avenue) and Brookland. The MBT, or Met Branch Trail, also provides a safe route to cross busy Rhode Island, New York and Florida avenues.

Casey Trees has always worked to regrow the tree canopy of the nation's capital, but its programs have often targeted private space—primarily the kind found near churches, historical homes and community organization buildings. However, when Casey Trees learned of the MBT, it joined with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and the NoMa Business Improvement District to plant trees leading up to the trailhead in the city's Eckington neighborhood on April 1, 2010.

Casey Trees again joined RTC on June 5, 2010, for an event called "Meet the Met: Party on the Met Branch Trail," a gathering that attracted nearly 1,000 people, most of them local residents taking their first steps on the pathway. The community celebration included a bicycle giveaway, flower plantings, free bicycle maintenance, health screenings and other activities.

If You Plant Them, They Will Come

© Casey Trees
Volunteers pedal out to water trees as part of
the "Water By-Cycle" program.

As local residents learn about newly opened sections of the MBT, Jim Woodworth, director of tree planting at Casey Trees, believes that tree-planting initiatives along the trail will draw attention to the community resource.

"[The trail's] a gem that is still being discovered, and by planting trees along it, we will bring more people to it and help raise the profile of that stretch of trail," he says.

The area now occupied by the MBT was, and is largely still, an industrial environment dominated by intimidating railroad tracks. Customers at a nearby shopping center were known to hop fences and cross the active tracks in order to reach the Rhode Island Avenue/Brentwood Metro station, and the makeshift road that followed the tracks was littered with garbage. The MBT now offers a functional transportation option for adjacent residential communities, and the beautification of the trail—along with the upcoming construction of a pedestrian walkway from the shopping center to the Metro station—will further increase trail activity.

Kelly Pack, manager of trail development at RTC, believes the additional users will be drawn to the shade created by large groups of trees near the trail.

"In the summertime, it is extremely hot, and you really don't see many people using the trail as much during those peak day hours," she says. "The new trees will provide some respite and allow people to enjoy the facilities. It's going to provide a place for kids to play and connect with nature."

In addition to drawing new users to the trail, Pack believes the aesthetic appeal of new trees along the MBT better serves neighborhood residents. "In some places, the corridor has a desolate look because historically it's been an industrial area," she says. "Planting trees is going to bring in the residential feel. There are a lot of shopping centers and residential buildings being built, so it's important that we continue to maintain and increase the tree canopy over there."

A Budding Partnership

Sharing programs with RTC also resonates with Casey Trees' own commitment and passion for bicycling.

"There's a culture of biking within our organization," Woodworth says. "I think the two go hand in hand, biking and trees."

© Casey Trees
With Casey Trees, a tree-planting event means rolling
up your sleeves and getting a little dirty.

He says the majority of workers at Casey Trees' headquarters, recently relocated to an area near the MBT, bike to work. Many of the volunteers also choose to travel to tree-planting events by bicycle, and Woodworth doesn't think that's a coincidence.

"That's why there was so much enthusiasm when this project came on our radar," he says. "I think there's no mystery that green-tree neighborhoods make for better living, as do bike lanes and bike trails. Supporting a biking culture makes for a livable city."

Perhaps the most direct indicator of this union is Casey Trees' relatively new "Water By-Cycle" program, which allows the organization to maintain recently planted trees all over the city without relying as heavily on trucks.

The "Summer Crew" is made up of 10 to 12 high school students who are invited from across the region to participate. In the last two years, a third of the high-schoolers have ridden bicycles to work sites, with an adult team member riding and towing a custom trailer that hauls their hoses, safety cones and instructional literature. Summer Crew members inspect the trees, perform any necessary maintenance and irrigate them using water from nearby fire hydrants. Casey Trees is hoping to expand the program, the first of its kind in the country, adding more students, increasing the proportion of Summer Crew members riding bicycles to work sites and having one member use the bicycle and trailer to perform maintenance throughout the calendar year.

"As an organization, we are thinking more broadly about how we can incorporate bikes into the work we do," Woodworth says. "We are always thinking about how we can use the bike to support our events and projects."

© Casey Trees
RTC staff help plant trees along a street heading up
to the Met Branch Trail.

Further growth and additional tree planting are in the works. On December 11, 2010, a team of volunteers and staff members from Casey Trees and RTC planted 25 trees along the section of the Met Branch Trail near S Street. In the spring, they planted an additional 25 trees, some of which are fruit trees, continuing up to the New York Avenue Metro station. (These tree plantings are part of RTC's Metropolitan Grants Program, funded by the Coca-Cola Foundation.)

Casey Trees will completely maintain the trees, in part through the Water By-Cycle program, through 2012. With the eventual construction of a commuter bridge to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop, Casey Trees is planning to add another 30 to 50 trees along that section of the MBT.

Among the volunteers participating in the tree planting event was Jennifer Mehren, a citizen forester who has been working with Casey Trees for more than three years. After moving to the D.C. area, she began looking for volunteer opportunities. She discovered Casey Trees after a co-worker recommended the organization.

"I get to see a lot of different neighborhoods and work with friendly, helpful and knowledgeable people," she says. "Plus, I get to be outside, and it really gives me a sense of accomplishment."

Mehren had never used the MBT before working with Casey Trees. Now she has another route for exercising and exploring the city on her bicycle.

Because of Casey Trees, its team members, volunteers and the many organizations that support the Met Branch Trail, a once-overlooked corridor has been replaced with a functional, paved path and a young tree canopy—and local residents have begun to take notice.

"[We] see a lot of real enthusiasm on the day of the planting, when we are out there with our shovels, and bikers are going by, and there's some interaction between the planters and the recreational users of the trail," says Woodworth. "Trees make great habitats for bikers."


Marshall Pearson is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. His first experience with rail-trails came on the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway while attending Ohio University in Athens.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
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