Baltimore's urban forest: Understanding the past and planning for the future
In 1906, Maryland became just the third state to hire a professionally-trained forester. Over the course of a career that spanned 36 years Fred Besley introduced a variety of conservation programs that would be adopted both regionally and nationally. Six years later, Mayor James H. Preston approved passage of Ordinance No. 154, creating the position of “city forester” and formally introducing professional forest management to the city of Baltimore. Though not the first city to establish control over its trees, Baltimore could now be added to the growing list of American cities to follow this route. Unfortunately, little is known about forest management in Baltimore during these early years. What we do know is that Baltimore’s aspiration to become known as the “city of a million trees” was never fully realized. Likewise, the city has struggled to produce an equitable distribution of trees. While a 2006 initiative to “double the city’s tree canopy” by 2036 has generated positive results, many parts of the city still lack trees. In this paper, I ask the following questions: What are the legacy effects of past forest management policies and practices? More specifically, what role did the Division of Forestry, as well as other entities, play in creating an inequitable distribution of trees? I use an environmental justice frame and a wide range of archival sources to answer these questions. I then focus attention on two neighborhoods in East Baltimore to determine if they are suitable locations for aggressive tree planting and greening efforts. The selection of East Baltimore is significant because it was here that the city first encountered resistance to tree planting in the 1940s.
My findings suggest that past policies and practices did, in fact, produce an inequitable distribution of trees. By planting trees in neighborhoods where residents could pay for this service, the Division of Forestry unwittingly contributed to the problem. Similarly, planting the “wrong” types of trees and failing to maintain new plantings caused some residents to oppose later planting initiatives. Meanwhile, restrictive covenants and discriminatory lending practices allowed some neighborhoods to attract amenities like trees at the expense of other neighborhoods. Also, unlike forestry at the state level, a lack of experienced leadership and poor funding produced a weak municipal agency unable to fulfill its mission. Finally, this research offers a lesson for both ecologists and social scientists – not everyone wants trees planted in their neighborhoods.