“Shade is an equity issue.”

When Stephanie Adams came on board as executive director for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks (Friends), she was excited about building playgrounds and planting trees. What could be less complicated? Then she had a conversation with a fellow sitting next to her on a plane who talked about why organizations focused on city parks should care about JEDI. And he wasn’t talking about Luke Skywalker. JEDI stands for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

“So, I brought it back to the organization,” Adams says. “We asked [ourselves], ‘How do we really look at this? After everything that happened last year [with COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter], how are we not only talking about it but how are we living it out? And how is it informing our work so that we can make good choices about where we show up?’”

After subsequent research, Adams discovered that public parks throughout the U.S. have historically benefited white middle- and upper-class folks at the expense of their Black and low-income neighbors. She cites New York City’s Central Park, which was built on land practically stolen from a community of 1,600 predominantly African American homeowners. Under-paid African American labor built the park. When it opened, Jim Crow laws prevented Black residents from enjoying it.

“Understanding the history of how parks have not been created equal for everyone helps inform why [Black] people do not feel safe at parks and why there is that historical trauma connected to the outdoors,” Adams says. “We can do a better job of creating community equity and community safety in our spaces.”

JEDI has indeed informed Friends’ work. In 2020, the nonprofit planted 778 trees; 60% of those were planted in the 49507 ZIP code, which includes Grand Rapids predominantly Black neighborhoods and populations facing the most income and health challenges. On the other side of town, in the predominantly Latinx Roosevelt Park neighborhood, Friends regularly watered and maintained 1,690 trees.

“There are so many parks in Grand Rapids. We can’t be at every single one of them. We can pick and choose based on where we see opportunity and where neighbors are saying, ‘My park doesn’t feel safe.’ Or ‘My park needs more love.’ Or ‘There’s never anything that’s happening at this park — there’s no activation.’ That’s where we can step in and help, come alongside. We hope we create opportunities to inspire and collaborate with the neighbors who are there.”

In 2020, Friends launched its Green Team, which employed four youths over the summer to care for the many trees that Friends had planted in Garfield Park and other locations. Friends’ crews and volunteers also watered and maintained trees in Uptown and Downtown. In all, volunteers donated 1,465 hours to help make these and other projects happen in 2020.

To ramp up for its 2021 tree plantings in the Burton Heights neighborhood, Friends suggested Plaster Creek Family Park as the site for the 2021 Mayor’s Greening Initiative. Mayor Bliss concurred.

Adams also sees park and tree equity as a matter of economic and health equity. Properties surrounded by trees have higher value. Tree-lined streets reduce crime, air pollution and heat — and improve physical, emotional and mental health.

“Shade is an equity issue,” she concludes. “The way cities were designed by redlining in the 40s and 50s, some parkways in Grand Rapids are smaller and do not have enough room for trees. We can come in there and make an improvement by adding tree infrastructure within people’s yards, change people’s heating and cooling bills, create a therapeutic effect and change a whole street.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

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