Citizen Forestry: Why Trees Don’t Make Sustainable Communities, People Do

On April 27, several bleak and over-paved blocks of downtown L.A.’s Arts District will be transformed by a community planting of 27 trees. Birds will sing, leaves will flutter, and hearts will lift: all because one person had a dream and got enough people excited about that dream to make it a reality.

That’s how Citizen Forestry works.

Gabrielle Newmark, an Arts District resident, was the winner of last year’s TreePeople-GOOD Maker Green City Challenge. She happens to be one of the 1,146 Citizen Foresters TreePeople has trained over the past 30 years, as is her mother, Sheila Newmark, who transformed a nearly treeless elementary school playground in her day.

TreePeople’s Citizen Forester program gives ordinary people the extraordinary ability to improve their environment by planting and caring for trees in their communities. That’s exactly what Gabrielle is doing on Neighborday (April 27). And, as every Citizen Forester learns, it goes far beyond the trees.

Most people come to Citizen Forestry because they want to make their campus, street, or park greener. They often want to plant and care for as many trees as they possibly can as quickly as they can. While the program helps guide people to do just that, at some point in the process, a realization—a sort of environmental epiphany—occurs.

The Citizen Foresters have been thinking about trees, numbers of trees, species, and for them to decide on all this “tree stuff” (e.g., to get permission to plant the trees) they have to meet with people. They have to talk to people. Now they are going to meetings, and calling city officials, and chatting with neighbors and teachers. That’s when it hits them: the transformation they are seeking is not just about the trees, it’s as much—if not more—about the people.

If creating sustainable cities was just about sticking trees in the ground, then we’d drop seedlings out of airplanes and call it a day. But we know it’s not some magical number of trees getting into the ground that will fix what’s wrong. It’s about connecting people to each other and building strong communities, communities that are able to plant and care for trees—and then plant even more trees—together. Once that happens, there’s pretty much nothing that can’t be accomplished.

TreePeople has helped hundreds of Citizen Foresters plant many thousands of trees with many thousands of people, whose communities became the better for it. If you have a corner of the city that you’ve been dreaming about transforming from gray to green, we’d like to invite you to join us.

Come by and see Gabrielle’s planting in action (surrounding the intersection of 6th and Mateo downtown—being mindful that volunteers will be hard at work). Observe for yourself what a huge difference tree planting can make to a city street and urban community. Then, start on the pathway to becoming a Citizen Forester yourself.

On May 4, TreePeople will hold our quarterly free Citizen Forester training at our Community Sustainability Workshops. There, you will get the tips and support you need to help grow a greener L.A., starting with your own home and neighborhood.

Andy Lipkis, president and founder of TreePeople says, “We so quickly believe that ‘We are the one species the earth could very well do without.’ But what if that’s not true? What if we are intended to discover and engage the capacities that deep down we know we have? What if we have been given that special role all along? Imagine how important and how joyful the taking up of that responsibility could be?”

Los Angeles needs more trees but, just as important, it needs more people to connect with each other to plant and care for these trees and build strong thriving communities. It needs more Citizen Foresters.

Why not you?

RSVP for TreePeople’s next Community Sustainability Workshops on May 4!

Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April! Visit to say you’ll Do It, and download GOOD’s Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.

(This post originally appeared on

By Lisa Cahill

Lisa Cahill first began her work with TreePeople as a volunteer Citizen Forester. She currently serves on the board of directors for the reDiscover Center, continues to volunteer as a Citizen Forester, has been on the Mar Vista Green Garden Tour and serves on several green committees at her church and children's schools. She most enjoys working in the garden with her husband, watching her children and vegetables grow.