New Haven’s New Roots

Elm trees are returning to the Elm City. “We’re having good luck with Princeton Elms,” says Margaret Carmalt, who manages the GreenSkills program at the Urban Resources Initiative (URI). “And Colonial Spirit Elms have shown to be disease resistant, too.”

The GreenSkills program works with the City of New Haven and Yale University to populate New Haven curb strips with a new generation of Elms, Black Gum trees, Scarlet Oaks, Sweetgums…there’s a long menu of options. Anyone who is a resident of New Haven can request a planting. Money to buy the trees and pay the work teams comes from the city and from private grants.

Carmalt, whose background includes both forestry and social work, has managed the GreenSkills program since 2009, the year Mayor Destefano vowed to plant 10,000 trees in New Haven with URI’s help. “When you look out over the city, there’s a robust canopy cover,” Carmalt says. “That canopy means more oxygen, lower energy use, and less storm water runoff.”

“And it’s kind of amazing,” she says, “when

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you realize that our canopy is constantly in flux. Take Norway Maples: that’s the predominant species in New Haven right now. They grow very quickly, very vigorously, but they’re weak-wooded. A lot of them are starting to poop out. It’s important to keep new trees coming in, to maintain that canopy over time.”

But revitalizing the canopy is only half of the GreenSkills mission. Every tree planting is also an opportunity to generate social revitalization. Two days a week, GreenSkills hires adults from Emerge, an ex-offender support program. Another two days a week, the program hires adults from Crossroads, a drug treatment facility, and Strive, a program focused on developing work ethic.

“They’re great people,” says Carmalt. “And soon they start saying, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this: I can work all day without stopping, I can hold a job.’ Anyone working with us learns that.

“Tree planting quickly relaxes people,” she

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says. “It’s a physical task that seems to put the mind at ease. I’m not a therapist—I don’t ask questions about people’s lives—but while we’re planting I will hear people talking to each other about what’s going on in their lives. People start to just open up.”

On weekends, GreenSkills hires student teams from The Sound School in the City Point neighborhood and Common Ground High School. These crews are overseen by Yale Forestry students.

“But our program lets Yale students meet folks from the city and realize that most of them are wonderful people. It’s also good for our employees to meet Yale students and realize, ‘Oh, they’re not all rich and privileged. These are nice people who have worked hard to get where they are.’”

I asked Carmalt to describe a planting to me. She smiled. “You’ve got to see it in person,” she said. “What’s nice about tree planting is that it requires teamwork. The trees we plant are large—you can’t plant one by yourself. You have to be able to work with people, to communicate. You have to be able to listen. Planting is a great way to develop those muscles.”

“And when you finish, you get the benefit of something concrete and positive in the ground. Something you can point to and be proud of, and even revisit twenty, thirty, forty years from now. Fifty, sixty, seventy years!”

Written by Jeremy Oldfield.

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