Casey Trees: Bringing green back to the city of trees

Casey Trees is Re-Planting the Urban Canopy

The nation’s capital is undoing its identity as the City of Trees with every crane, new building and power tool. Can we get back to the green that D.C. is known for?

What if I told you groups of residents, volunteers, are bringing back Washington’s tree canopy one tree at a time?

This month, my media team heard about local non-profit Casey Trees, whose initiative is just that: restoring all the leaves and branches overhead in the city through the mobilization of volunteers. Since 1950, the tree coverage of D.C. has gone from 50 percent tree canopy to 35 percent, leaving streets barren, bleak and gray. In our 360 video about the evolution of greenness in the District, we tell a story of these volunteers as they try to undo the last few decades of damage.

We wanted to use the 360 medium as an interactive, immersive way to get the viewers into the story. The viewers stand right in the grassy D.C. meadow with the volunteers, looking on as a volunteer shovels out a hole for the yearling and walking through a shady tree-filled city street right there with us. All the while, our crew runs away from the spherical camera set up in the middle of the street, desperately trying to get out of the shots. The product? An opportunity to live through the project’s transformation and the city’s dramatic change.

Casey Trees’ goal is to enhance the canopy to 40 percent coverage, which has been hard as D.C. develops and creates more buildings, like so many other cities have. Our team traveled around the city trying to find the greenest street corner to film, but it was hard. We ended up on Capitol Hill, filming the abundant foliage that swayed in and out of the view of the Library of Congress and other government buildings.

But our production team quickly realized most D.C. neighborhoods are not as green as the well-kept and thoughtfully preserved federal lands. It was not hard to find a street corner to film for the bleak shot of typical downtown intersections. And when our team learned more about what these trees on the street could mean for the city, the effect shocked us. Not only do trees make the city look more beautiful. They also absorb stormwater, offset pollution of CO2 and air particulate matter, have positive effects on health and longevity and reduce D.C. urban heat island effect. Trees are important, and we wanted to capture this through the spatial overview of the Casey Trees mission.

Their simple approach to a huge issue is to have volunteer plantings every week. Through these events, Head Arborist Becky Schwartz of Casey Trees, hopes that volunteers will start to become invested in the issue and dedicate more time and effort to helping bring the green, shady, relaxing streets back.

She said, “[Our] motto of Casey Trees is to connect people to trees, through trees and at Casey Trees and so by having these community tree plantings and the other events we do, we’re kind of connecting people to each other.”

This space, in the nation’s capital, is one you can now explore and have access to in the video. Move around and see the volunteers deploying to plant trees in the bare space. As you look around at the volunteer swinging a pickaxe high to break the ground, you may have the sensation of mud caking on your palms and calluses forming. Like the volunteers, you too will feel connected to the environment and the cityscape.

You can plant the trees that will, in three years, mature to contribute to the overall canopy. And at the end, you will be able to take a look at Northwest D.C., where you can see the future of the city’s streets. As they probably looked in 1950, the streets are lined with autumn leaves and healthy trees. By 2030, if Casey Trees continues to connect volunteers with their environment in order to enhance the District, more neighborhoods will feel like this one.

— Everly Jazi

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