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Real People: The Biggest Weakness of Urban and Environmental Planning


In studying urban history, one of the lessons of the disaster of public housing in the mid-twentieth century is that the big housing projects never asked or cared about participation from the people who were going to live there in what they wanted. It wasn’t’ the single largest problem–that was the assumption that this housing would pay for itself and thus when it became sites of concentrated poverty there was no funding mechanism to keep up the buildings. But the lack of participation mattered too. In particular, the creation of the large green spaces between the buildings reflected a particular kind of aesthetic by the planners that was not shared by the residents. Thus, those spaces were alienating to residents and they avoided them and didn’t care about them.

I was reminded of this history when reading this story about how environmental planners in Detroit ran into the same problem when they started planting trees in the city without asking residents what they wanted.

The tree-planters met stiff resistance: Roughly a quarter of the 7,500 residents they approached declined offers to have new trees planted in front of their homes. It was a high enough volume of rejections for such an otherwise valuable service that University of Vermont researcher Christine E. Carmichael wanted to know the reasons behind it.

She obtained data that TGD collected on the people who turned them down, and then visited Detroit to interview staff members and residents. What she found is that the rejections had more to do with how the tree-planters presented themselves and residents’ distrust of city government than it did with how residents felt about trees. Carmichael’s findings (with co-author Maureen H. McDonough) were published this week in the journal Society and Natural Resources.

The residents Carmichael surveyed understood the benefits of having trees in urban environments—they provide shade and cooling, absorb air pollution, especially from traffic, increase property values, and improve health outcomes. But the reasons Detroit folks were submitting “no tree requests” were rooted in how they have historically interpreted their lived experiences in the city, or what Carmichael calls “heritage narratives.”

These are the stories that people from all walks of Detroit life tell themselves and each other about why city conditions are the way they are. The heritage narratives that residents shared about trees in Detroit were different from the ones shared among the people in city government and TGD.

A couple of African-American women Carmichael talked to linked the tree-planting program to a painful racist moment in Detroit’s history, right after the 1967 race rebellion, when the city suddenly began cutting down elm trees in bulk in their neighborhoods. The city did this, as the women understood it, so that law enforcement and intelligence agents could better surveil their neighborhoods from helicopters and other high places after the urban uprising.

The city was chopping down trees at a faster clip at this time. And  the city was flying helicopters over their homes at one point—to spray toxic DDT from above on the trees. However, the government’s stated reason for the mass tree-choppings was that the trees were dying off from the Dutch elm disease then spreading across the country. These were competing heritage narratives of the same event—the clearing away of trees in the 1960s. The two narratives are in conflict, but it was the women’s version, based on their lived experiences, that led to their decision to reject the trees today. It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.

“In this case, the women felt that [after the race rebellion] the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees,” said Carmichael. “But they felt they should have a choice in this since they’ll be the ones caring for the trees and raking up the leaves when the planters leave. They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.”

“Having people come in and not be from the city and then dictate what goes on—not that we ever did that—but that’s the feeling. So we want people to feel comfortable with our engagement team that’s talking about the benefits of trees,” said Tabares.

The lessons learned from the study are immediately important, given that environmental organizations often partner with cities for these kinds of services. This is especially true when local governments don’t have the funding to do it (as happened in Detroit) or when the federal government shuts down (what’s happening now). Having diverse staffs that reflect the city’s neighborhoods and understand the heritage narratives that run through them matter.  

“Heritage narratives are important because they guide actions that are taken,” said Carmichael. “A nonprofit might say tree-canopy decline can be used to justify their approach to educating residents, because there are people who don’t understand the value of trees. But everyone I interviewed understood those benefits, so it’s inaccurate to say that. Ultimately, the feeling was that they were being disenfranchised.”

A few years ago, I was teaching a graduate seminar on environmental history. There was a student taking it from our marine affairs program. And this guy hated the class. I mean, hated it. And there was one reason–I kept putting things like this in front of the students. Stories of how environmental planners weren’t operating in a vacuum and instead, their plans ran straight into living breathing human beings. These were works such as James Scott’s Seeing Like a State and Marsha Weisiger’s Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country and Mark Carey’s In the Shadows of Melting Glaciers, books all of you should read. But this guy, he just thought what had to happen is that experts like he was training to be needed to go in and tell people what they needed to hear and impose the right thing upon them.

Well, it doesn’t work that way. If you want environmental planning, it has to include actual democracy. People need to be consulted. Yeah, it takes more time and money. It’s messy. But it’s also the only way it can work. Ask the people of Detroit what they want. You might think you are just planting a tree. But that tree exists in a history that you don’t know and can’t know unless you ask the affected people.

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