Environment: How One Tree Tender Represents The New Guard Trying To ‘Soften The Proverbial Concrete Jungle’ In South Philadelphia

Philadelphia is full of tree tending groups that do environmental work that goes relatively unnoticed. These tree tending groups work within their neighborhoods to help create a greener Philadelphia.

(File photo)

There are over 200 tree tending groups associated with Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, PHS. These tree tenders are neighborhood-based volunteers trained by PHS. 

Many neighborhoods in Philadelphia have a community tree tending group. However, each group faces different circumstances and challenges when doing environmental work in their areas. 

Carolyn Duffy is the street tree organizer of South Philly Green, a tree tending organization for East Point Breeze, Newbold, West Passyunk, and Girard Estate neighborhoods. The group also maintains the gardens and planters along West Passyunk Avenue. At South Philly Green, Duffy is responsible for coordinating the planting of street trees that comes through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Tree Tenders Program.

What is the benefit of tree planting for your neighborhood and in an urban environment? 

I plant in Newbold, West Passyunk Triangle, East Point Breeze, Girard Estate eastward to Broad Street. Except for the Girard Estates area, most of this area is without a lot of tree coverage. For this area, trees will provide its most basic shade and a cooler environment. Shade for humans walking down the street. Shade for the homes to reduce summer cooling costs. When I think of this past summer and the sweltering days we had, AC units were going full throttle. Trees will soften the proverbial concrete jungle.

What challenges do you face with tree planting in your neighborhood? 

Historically, there has been a negative attitude toward trees from the “old guard.” Some common responses are, “leaves are trash, birds will live in the trees and mess up my car, I won’t get a tree because I have seen my neighbor having to redo their sidewalk multiple times because of the tree roots, that tree leaves blew over here and I have to sweep it up.” 

I actually heard someone say to someone who had been trying to get rid of their tree for some time that he knew how to kill the tree. “Pour Clorox on it.”

I also know there is negative generational pressure. A nearby neighbor’s father helped fix up her house. The daughter expressed she would love to get a tree but wouldn’t because of her father’s concern. The father actually likes trees, but not in the concrete or as a street tree.

How do these challenges differ from other tree planting organizations in different neighborhoods and other tree planting organizations?

I used to plant trees in Center City. People were thrilled to get a tree. The attitude was that the more trees, the better.

What successes have you had recently?

Well, this fall, I will be planting 22 trees. I believe this is a windfall for the number of trees this group has planted in one go. I have only led this group for one year. I think the pandemic has greatly influenced the need to create a better outdoor environment and do something for the climate. 

Also, I recently talked to the local senior community center about getting trees to surround their building. I haven’t gotten the full confirmation yet, but I’m crossing my fingers. The center could get at least eight trees. And I have talked about doing some tree programming with the center. 

What do you enjoy most about your job within your tree planting organization?

This is a tough question because I enjoy all aspects of what I do, but push comes to shove, I really like interacting with the people getting the trees, the volunteers, and the tree tenders who are still learning about trees. Right now, I see my role as training the next generation to take over my role.

What is the community’s response to tree planting, and what is community/ volunteer involvement like?

Well, this is a mixed bag. The people who are helping to plant the trees and have taken the tree tender classes are generally the “new guard” to the neighborhood, like my neighbor who moved in just this past spring.

They immediately put in an application for a tree. The new guard is very enthusiastic about trees and greening the neighborhood they live in. This neighborhood has seen the flux of the new guard. With this will come more trees, and the old guard may not like it, but they will have to learn to deal with it. Unfortunately, I have seen random vandalism to trees: breaking of branches and sawing into trees.

What is your favorite tree?

This is a hard question as I love so many trees. But I will stick to Cercis Canadensis, or the common name: Redbud.

Any other comments or things you would like me to know?

I have been doing tree planting in the city for over 10 years now. Beyond knowing I am helping the environment and beautifying the neighborhood, I love watching “my” trees grow up.

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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