March 13, 2015 by Dana Fisher
Photo by Flickr user David Tan.
Dana R. Fisher is professor of sociology and director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland. Her essay builds on findings from a study funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service. She considers the research and its impact on civic engagement for Knight News Challenge: Elections, which asks the question: How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? The best nonpartisan ideas will share in more than $3 million. Apply at newschallenge.org.
As much of the country begins to defrost from a harsh winter, individuals and communities are just beginning to dig in to spring planting season. In communities around the United States, individual volunteers are participating in efforts to plant trees and remove weeds from public and private lands. These efforts are known to have environmental, as well as broader social benefits for communities. One of the lesser-discussed benefits of such greening initiatives, however, is the effect that digging together as a community can have on the civic lives of the individuals who participate, and affect other behaviors such as voting.
My work has found that actively participating in these kinds of environmental activities—such as planting trees, taking care of a watershed or volunteering at an urban farm—serves as a kind of civic gateway for Americans to get more involved in their communities. In our new book, “Urban Environmental Stewardship and Civic Engagement: How Planting Trees Strengthens the Roots of Democracy,” my co-authors and I unpack this relationship, presenting findings from a two-year study of more than 700 volunteer stewards involved in the MillionTreesNYC initiative. In 2015, this initiative will plant its millionth tree and fulfill the goals set forth by the public-private partnership between Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and the New York Restoration Project. Beyond making the city greener and more resilient to floods from storm events such as Hurricane Sandy, we find that the initiative has also provided a civic gateway for New Yorkers to get more involved environmentally, as well as to become more engaged citizens overall. In the book, we not only look at the civic engagement of volunteer stewards on the day that they help plant trees, we also follow up with them a year later and find that planting trees played a role in encouraging them to be more active citizens.