[CItyLab] Why Detroit residents pushed back against tree-planting

Summary (made with smmry.com):

In 2014, the city was a few years deep into a campaign to reforest its streets after decades of neglecting to maintain its depleted tree canopy.

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.

It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.

“In this case, the women felt that the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees,” said Carmichael.

“City residents could request a tree planting in their neighborhood from TGD, but TGD’s green infrastructure staff decided in which neighborhoods to plant trees, as well as tree species to plant and tree maintenance protocols,” reads the paper.

Monica Tabares, TGD’s vice president of operations and development, said the organization always had a community-engagement process, but other factors complicated their interactions with residents, such as the city’s poor record of tree maintenance.

“Also, the city itself didn’t have the capacity to bring down dead trees, nor to prune trees, plus the fact that we were now replanting trees in some really decimated areas with no tree canopy. It left people questioning whether they were going to be taken care of. It just didn’t jibe right with all of our resident partners.”


That is an interesting take on it. I wondered if the residents linked two unrelated things, to blame the city for the loss of the elms, that really was a loss of elms in the whole USA during that period? Dutch elm disease.

I looked up the year, city and elm and found this article. How Detroit lost its stately elms - Michigan History - The Detroit News

Here is what it said:

”Perhaps if they had not been so beautiful. Perhaps if they had been planted 100 feet apart instead of 40. Perhaps if the space between the sidewalk and the curb had been wider. Perhaps if the homeowners had watered them. Perhaps if the European beetle had not arrived in this country in a load of infected elm wood for furniture.

Then maybe Detroit would still have some of the lofty elm trees that formed vaulted cathedral-like tunnels of shade over neighborhood streets.

During the 1930s some Netherlandish beetles that lived in elm bark and carried a deadly fungus came to ravish America’s beloved elms. Most cities had chosen the fast growing elm to shade neighborhood streets. Detroit planted over 400,000 trees on city land, between sidewalks and street curbs. The saplings quickly grew to enormous size, up to 120 feet tall… But the quick growth soon caused the wide tree trunks to lift sidewalks and attack the curbs. Crews replaced the uplifted sidewalk sections with curved sections to avoid the encroaching trunks.
The beloved trees seemed to protect the homes. Homes surrounded by the shade trees seemed not to need air conditioning. The leaves allowed filtered sunlight to attract the eye heavenward, and indeed most that recall the trees, describe the arches of elm branches in terms of cathedral vaults used by medieval church architects to lift the spirit.

In 1950 the first case of Dutch elm disease appeared in Detroit. It quickly spread, with cases reported on Korte Street, Chandler Park, Gratiot and Eight Mile, Jefferson and Conner, and on Manor Avenur near Meyers and Plymouth Roads.

Detroit decided to try to save the trees by spraying DDT by helicopter. DDT, legal at the time, did kill insects. It also killed birds and threatened pets and children, according to environmentalists. Parents kept their kids indoors while the copters sprayed. Lawyers considered lawsuits for the delicate who might suffer a reaction from the chemicals. Bird lovers counted bodies, but also mourned the loss of the homes for the birds, the very trees the helicopters were trying to save. Later Methoxychlor replaced DDT, but it was found to kill fish. The chemical was not to be allowed to get into the sewer system. But how was the rain to know when it washed over the sprayed tree leaves?

Lawsuits weren’t the only problem. Even Lloyd’s of London refused insurance to cover the spraying. Detroit’s efforts to save the trees did delay the inevitable long enough to develop a manageable tree removal system. Toledo had decided not to spray, and lost almost all their trees quickly. Falling branches and storm-felled became a serious problem. Des Moines, Iowa, which also did no prevention, lost 90 percent of its trees within a decade, leaving the tree-lined neighborhoods dusty and wind-swept.

Property values, and tax revenues based on those values, also dropped while the costs of tree removal soared for most stricken cities.

During the early 1950s Detroit lost only 2,000 trees per year, a small enough number to keep the crews at an even pace, and to help spread the cost out over a longer period.

In 1965 a drought hit, adding more stress to the trees. The removal pace hit about 10,000 trees per year, until 1972, when the city had taken down 100,000 trees over the previous 21 years.

In 1970 Detroit paid $500,000 for tree removal and $300,000 for spraying, which seemed to delay the deaths of the elms.

In a 1968 Michigan State University extension bulletin, researchers estimated that Michigan had about 5 million elm shade trees still alive, and their value was more than $700 million.

Property owners bore the cost of removal, usually about $1,000 per tree. City workers warned delinquent homeowners to hurry it up, or pay the city for removal.
Pollution rules required that cut trees were only to be disposed of in approved and expensive burial dumps. Detroit began to violate the no-burn law and burned the trees in big piles on Belle Isle.

After the epidemic had run its course, hindsight proved that the efforts to maintain tree health had been the least costly approach to the problem The prevention efforts only delayed the inevitable, but allowed an orderly transition, as other varieties of trees replaced the elms. But homeowners still mourned their elms. Michigan lost 80 percent of its shade elms.

Scientists have been working on finding a resistant elm since the 1930s with little success. However, some lessons learned include spreading new plantings far apart so the beetles can’t attack so quickly. Some chemicals may help keep some trees alive longer. Large watered lawns, such as in Grosse Pointe seem to allow for healthier, more resistant trees. Variety in planting choices might prevent any disease from wiping out vast numbers of identical trees. Researchers may yet find a perfect resistant elm to come back and shade us.“


The benefits of urban trees well known, but I rarely hear of the disadvantages. They cause a lot of water pollution and damage to homes. A lot of resources are devoted to prune and ultimately remove the trees. Here it costs a homeowner about $1200 to remove a large tree. Just pruning large trees costs several hundred dollars. People are seriously injured every year falling of ladders and roofs trying to clean out their gutters from leaves. They cause a lot of damage electric lines and risk to electric power employees.

As you can probably tell, I’m a guy who doesn’t get excited about having big trees close to my house (though my wife insists we do). I’m always amazed after just about every storm the local news stations will show a reporter next to a house a tree has crashed through. The owners of the house act surprised, as if something unusual has happened to them. What did they expect? Trees blow down in windy climates like mine. That’s the natural end of all trees, they come down in one way or another.

People nowadays have a sort of sacred view of trees. They must be planted, nurtured, encouraged, etc. Even the President recently announced an initiative to have a gazillion trees planted. However, we get enough rain here, trees will naturally take over an unmowed spot in a fairly short time. I have to spray them to kill them every year along the fence rows. The American indians burned the plains where I live for thousands of years to keep forests from growing. Some of the plains are still burned every year to prevent trees. They are as common as dirt in my area, and mostly pests in my plantings.

I get that trees are a storage of carbon, I just don’t think big trees are a great idea next to homes. Remember, “Only you can prevent forests.” :wink:


The way I heard it was “Only forest fires can prevent bears.”

We’ve got four good-sized maples on our property or adjacent (on boulevard) to it. There’s a fifth I probably should take out. I could probably manage that one myself, but the rest, no. The great big one that could conceivably fall our way is wonderful, and I just hope it outlives us!


Perhaps we should be encouraging more plantings of shrubs. They will still help with pollution and aren’t as difficult to maintain.


I see elms from time to time now here in Michigan. They are sold wholesale right out of the state.

I myself like the ash better for fire wood mostly. And we don’t have any of those either.
Lot’s of seedlings survived the ash borer. But the 4 foot in diameter trees are gone.
I had firewood from the ash borer on my island and it lasted 8 years I had so much!
Here is a beautiful ash that bit the dust.


We’re just beginning to lose our White Ash, I expect we’ll be milling a good amount of it. I understand the infected White Ash gets punky quite quickly. Growing up I recall in the mid 70’s cutting dead American Elm off our property to heat the house. My parents had just built the house in '71-72 with all electric heat. Then the energy crisis spiked electric costs and we began heating with wood. That Elm was miserable stuff, next to impossible to split, stringy we called it. It was slow to dry as well.


I didn’t see that. You had to look to find damage. It also lasted 8 years outside as firewood before it started to rot. Man that is some good wood! It seemed to me the beetles killed the tree, but the wood was fine. Very few tunnels or damage.

Can you see any damage in that wood? I know not the best picture. It does show how fresh the wood and bark looks.

My pug chatting with the locals…


That’s great news, once they start to decline we hope to harvest them to mill. Thanks Drew.


At the turn of the last century, American Elms were planted in our town. Although those remaining are remarkable in size and stature, they are succumbing to Dutch Elm Disease. As these and the Chinese Elms were being planted throughout the state, the extension agent in Woodward, Oklahoma decided to go with Lacebark Elms. Being resistant to drought and disease. and not favored by the elm beetles, these have grown into incredible specimens. They make great shade trees. Their primary weakness is narrow crotches that make them susceptible to ice storms.

1 Like

I hope they meet your needs, , they should be removed ASAP anyway. Nothing big is going to survive.

too bad you couldn’t get that milled. big bucks for ash veneer and boards.

1 Like

with the discovery of EAB here 2 yrs ago, it doesn’t look good for our ashes here. they are in the top 3 most abundant trees growing here. Maine too was hit hard by dutch elm disease. we have a few isolated survivors out in the fields. I’ve seen picks of them along the st. john river back in the early 70’s. they were impressive and besides w. pines were our biggest trees. they have all been replaced by mostly boxelders.

1 Like

Being on an island makes it tough. The profit is lost getting the truck there to take them.
A giant oak has fallen this year and it just missed my cottage and landed in my wood pile! I don’t even have to carry the wood there! Perfect timing any wood I have is done after this year, too old. Cool! I have not even been there to see it. A friend sent a photo. The ferry starts running the 2nd week of April. And I have so much to do, oh well, keeps me busy!
I bought blueberries and jujube trees to plant. I have to prep areas yet. And haul the soil for the blueberries up there. I have a raised bed for the blues.


thats what inlaws are for! :wink:

1 Like