New Nursery Hopes to Expand City’s Tree Cover

By SOPHIE DUNCAN/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Early on a recent Friday morning several community members, neighbors and representatives from Groundwork Providence gathered to celebrate the completion of the Hope Tree Nursery, in an industrial area of the city that once housed metal manufacturers.

Situated on the former Sprague Industries site, a brownfield still laden with residual toxics from its factory days, Hope Tree Nursery will give the surrounding Elmwood neighborhood access to affordable trees grown locally, according to organizers.

Elmwood is among several city neighborhoods deemed as “low canopy,” according to a 2006 study of Providence’s tree canopy. The study revealed that the city only has 23 percent tree canopy, and the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program (PNPP) and Groundwork Providence’s Trees 2020 program have been working to increase that canopy to 30 percent by 2020.

Groundwork Providence aims with its Trees 2020 program to have 40,000 trees planted by 2020. The project specifically focuses on increasing the amount of trees planted on private property. As Doug Still, city forester and member of the PNPP management team, explained, there are “many pieces to that puzzle … of how we are going to plant that many trees.”

Hope Tree Nursery is an important piece of that puzzle, because “residential properties have the most potential for increasing trees,” Still said. Low-canopy neighborhoods are a priority because the neighborhoods with the lowest tree canopies often are some of the city’s poorest.

The West End, where Elmwood neighborhood is located, has a 15 percent tree canopy. On the East Side, for example, the Blackstone neighborhood has 40 percent. As a nonprofit neighborhood nursery, Hope Tree Nursery will help make increasing the tree canopy in West Elmwood a reality. Establishing a nursery accessible both by price and proximity ensures sustainable access to local trees, according to organizers.

Because no soil can be removed from this brownfield site, the trees are grown “pot in pot” — with one pot nestled in the ground and the other, holding the tree, placed inside it.

Sharon Conard-Wells, executive director of the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, is “excited to see tree-lined streets coming back to the West End.”

Workers from GroundCore, Groundwork Providence’s adult-training program, advanced the Trees 2020 program by building the nursery. Steve Rhind, a GroundCore worker, described the relationship that neighbors are already developing with the nursery. “The site was kind of a mess … the most gratifying thing about it was as we were building people would walk by and say what improvement it was and ask questions.”

In addition to neighborhood engagement, Rhind has noticed an increased wildlife presence, such as various birds, as he has worked on Sprague Street nursery.

Hope Tree Nursery will feature 27 varieties of native — or near native — trees. Organizers hope the 4,500-square-foot nursery will eventually house 300 trees. This local nursery will help reduce the carbon footprint of transporting purchased trees from, say, Oregon, help prevent the introduction of foreign diseases and allow Providence to directly reap the air-quality benefits from raising trees.

The presence of Hope Tree Nursery also will help educate the neighborhood about the importance of trees. The nursery will host educational tours, and banners hung across the front containing pictures of trees with both their English and Spanish names. These banners will change seasonally to both engage and inform members of the community who regularly pass by this former contaminated property.

Rachel Newman Greene, the community strategies manager for Community Works Rhode Island who lives down the street from the new nursery, said the recent increase of tree plantings is eliminating the neighborhood’s “industrial … bleak feeling.”

Although the physical presence of the Hope Tree Nursery already has transformed the facade of Sprague Street, the future impact of the nursery is yet to be seen. As neighbors buy and plant trees, the trees will be geotagged on a map, providing a more comprehensive view of the nursery’s physical presence in the community.

This pilot project cost about $30,000, with the money coming from private and federal sources.