OpenTreeMap for Community Engagement: Grand Rapids

OpenTreeMap for Community Engagement: Grand Rapids

We like to say OpenTreeMap is a cross between a tree inventory tool and a public engagement tool. In my last blog, I talked to Ursinus student Amos Almy about how he’s been using PhillyTreeMap to inventory the trees on his college campus and export the data for use in other projects.

OpenTreeMap can be more than an inventory tool, however. Having a publicly editable map can also help urban forestry groups to engage volunteers and members of the community. At the Partners in Community Forestry conference last November in Sacramento, I got to meet Lee Mueller, Urban Forest Project Coordinator at the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Lee works on the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project, an initiative that recently won the 2013 Excellence in Urban Forest Leadership Award from the Arbor Day Foundation. The Urban Forest Project (UFP) has been using OpenTreeMap as part of their regular programming, and we were able to talk about some of the community activities they’ve been able to do with the map.

Interestingly, the UFP was using their map months before they launched a “Citizen Forester” program this past March to encourage a higher level of volunteering. When they launched their OpenTreeMap-based tree map 10 months ago, Lee and the UFP team started out conducting a series of educational workshops on how to map trees. The workshops usually began with a discussion about the importance of trees and the need for accurate data about Grand Rapids’ urban forest, said Lee. The tree map would then be introduced as “a way you can participate directly to help us understand [our forest] and also to communicate to your neighbors or those around you what the importance and value of those trees are.”

These workshops were structured in the hopes that participants would “go off into the world and map trees,” as Lee puts it. Participation did not reach levels Lee and others hoped, however. “We’ve had some people that do go out and map a lot of trees – usually people who were interested in trees to begin with, but large scale participation hasn’t hit any sort of acceleration or critical mass,” Lee said. He suspects this may have something to do with launching the treemap in late summer, as there’s only a short period of time before the leaves fall off the trees. Tree community engagement efforts are often most popular in the springtime.

Undeterred, Lee and the UFP looked into other ways to engage volunteers and community members. One method they had success with was hosting tree “mapathons” – adapting a practice from the civic hacking world. “We challenged the neighborhood to map 100 trees, and we would give them 5 trees they could plant in any public location of their choosing. If they mapped 200 trees, we would give them 10 trees to plant in any public space,” said Lee of one of the mapathons UFP ran. “That worked really well, they hit the 200 trees. We had a 10 day window for them to map those trees and that number was reached within a couple days,” said Lee. “That was pretty cool.”

Lee and the UFP held another mapathon with a local community college. “As we mapped the trees, we had price tags that we fixed to the trees that basically read off their ecosystem values. In that instance, we were able to directly communicate not only with the people who were mapping the trees but with the people who might use [the tree map],” explained Lee.

Adding price tags to trees can be an effective way to raise awareness in the community. “People connect the dots,” says Lee. “I’ll mention, I’m with the Urban Forest Project, we do all these activities with the tree map, and they’ll go, ‘Oh! Yeah, I’ve seen tags around, what’s that about?’ A lot of times it sparks conversation.”

Lee strongly encourages his volunteers to gather enough information about each tree they map so OpenTreeMap can compute the tree’s ecosystem benefits. Usually, this just involves identifying the species of the tree and measuring the circumference or Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) of the trunk.

OpenTreeMap integrates with the US Forest Service’s i-Tree software suite to automatically calculate benefits and savings each tree contributes to air quality, water conservation, and energy costs. “People can use that as a communication tool with their neighbors. If their neighbor is thinking of cutting down a tree,” Lee explains, “map it first and then show them what they might actually be losing.”

Adults may be convinced of the urban forest’s value by the hard facts and dollar signs that price tags and eco-benefit calculations show, but what about younger volunteers? “Especially when I’m working with kids or teachers who will be mapping trees as part of their classroom experience,” says Lee, “I mention the comments section and the picture.” The ability to add photos and comments on each tree mapped within OpenTreeMap opens a world of other opportunities to connect people with the nature around them.

One mapathon Lee organized was with parents and students at a local school. In addition to affixing price tags to the trees, Lee said, “we also allowed [the kids] to add in the comments section, ‘this was mapped during the Child Discovery Center mapathon’, so it kind of allowed them to gain ownership” of the trees the students had mapped. Lee also encourages teachers to have their class to go out and take pictures of the trees they map and even name them. “Say they’re going to name it Larry, put in the comments section, ‘I named this tree Larry.’ [Have the kids] build that relationship with the nature,” says Lee.

Having a page on the tree map and a comments section for each tree can be useful in other ways too, Lee says. When the Urban Forest Project does tree plantings, they use the comments section to recognize sponsors. The tree map also had a role as the sole nomination platform for Grand Rapids’ 2013 Mayor’s Tree of the Year award. Citizens could map and nominate a tree for the award by adding a comment on the tree’s page. “We got a few nominations through the tree map, so that [process] worked pretty well,” Lee said. The City’s Urban Forestry Committee reviewed the submissions and ultimately selected a large, hundred year old Burr Oak for the award.

Lee said his first mapping workshop had 20 people in it, and his first Citizen Forester tree stewardship class in March had about 25 individuals. “The Citizen Forester program is definitely…generating a core group of volunteers we didn’t previously have,” says Lee. Many of the other cities that have OpenTreeMap started using the map after they had a substantial volunteer program in place, much like PhillyTreeMap and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s venerable 20-year old Tree Tenders program.

For us at Azavea, it is exciting to see the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project grow its Citizen Forester stewardship program and urban forestry community alongside its consistent and innovative use of OpenTreeMap for things like mapathons, school activities, and the Mayor’s Tree of the Year nominations process. While OpenTreeMap is a capable public inventory tool, the map really shines when it gets used in community engagement activities and provides another layer for people to learn about, get involved, and get excited about the urban forest.