The Canopy Builders: Planting trees brings people together to create healthier, safer neighborhoods

Esperanza in the News, Featured, Press Releases

On a brisk Saturday morning in November, Victor Santiago, Elissa Goldberg, and six other people marched through Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood with saplings hefted over their shoulders and shovels and pails in hand. The diverse crew of eight was heading to the 4100 block of Fifth Street to plant honey locusts, Sargent cherries, London planes, and other trees.

These volunteers, part of the Esperanza PHS Tree Tenders, joined about 80 other groups in a massive planting effort in late November 2021. In just five days, 1,350 trees—representing 60 different species—were planted, a record showing for the PHS tree program.

“I love planting trees,” says 60-year-old Goldberg, a Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, resident and program director at Drexel University College of Medicine. “Trees provide shade and oxygen and beauty. They live for a long time and provide homes to birds.” The Esperanza trees will provide welcome shade and greenery to one of the most barren and hottest summertime spots in Philadelphia. And along with the trees, volunteers are
planting something less tangible for struggling urban residents: the roots of health and hope.


Since PHS Tree Tenders was launched in 1993 with a goal to increase the tree canopy in the Delaware Valley, more than 5,000 volunteers have been trained and more than 25,000 trees have been planted in the five-county region, says Tim Ifill, PHS director of trees. The Esperanza group, established in 2018, has added 160 trees along the neighborhood streets, including 15 during last November’s workday.

“We’re always pushing to plant trees in front of homes,” says Jasmin Velez, community outreach coordinator for Esperanza, a nonprofit organization serving the Hunting Park area. “That helps us reach our long-term goal of reducing heat in the neighborhood and also ties into all the other social elements that really make our community safe and enjoyable.”

“Trees can help make many neighborhoods healthier and more livable,” Ifill says. “Investing a dollar and an hour in caring for a tree has such incredible returns. Trees pay for themselves many times over.” Recent research supports this assertion, with data that shows numerous benefits for residents.

Trees shade heat islands. Philadelphia has identified Hunting Park as one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city—running as high as 22°F warmer than other areas during a heat wave. A lack of trees and green space is one factor contributing to the higher temperatures, according to the city government’s 2019 “Beat the Heat” plan for the community, which reported that buildings, roads, and paved surfaces cover about three-fourths of the land in Hunting Park while trees—despite the neighborhood’s name—cover only 9 percent. By contrast, just over half of Philadelphia’s land cover overall consists of buildings and hard surfaces, and 19 percent is tree canopy.

Trees may deter violence. Adolescent boys and young men in Philadelphia were less likely to be victims of gunshot assault if they were under tree cover, according to a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. That study is one example in a growing body of evidence that indicates exposure to green spaces may be associated with lower levels of violent crime.

Trees may reduce health risks and stress. Four hundred three premature deaths could be prevented each year in the city if it would meet its goal of growing canopy coverage to 30 percent by 2025, concluded a 2020 assessment by the USDA Forest Service and other researchers involved with Philadelphia’s Greenworks initiative. Research has also shown that living in a green neighborhood may be associated with lower risks of heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stress.

Trees may enhance well-being and mental health. People living near vacant lots in Philadelphia that were “cleaned and greened” by PHS reported significant decreases in feelings of depression and worthlessness when compared with those who lived near vacant lots that remained uncleaned and full of trash, says a study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open in 2018.


PHS trains volunteers in tree planting and care basics for nine hours over three days, culminating in a Picnic with a Purpose, a hands-on event where trees are planted and pruning skills practiced while participants enjoy a meal. The graduates then return to their communities and rally neighbors. To form a group, at least three graduates must agree to work together within a defined geographic area, which can cover one block or
multiple zip codes.

PHS provides the trees, mulch, and other materials for free. Grants from various sources— including the Pennsylvania state government, PECO, and Philadelphia’s Division of Housing and Community Development—fund the spring and fall plantings in the city, Ifill says, while in the suburbs, municipal and county governments cover the costs.

Tree Tenders continue to monitor the health of the trees they plant. The one-year survival rate, Ifill says, is 94 percent—above the average for urban forestry programs. The five-year rate is 78 percent, which is closer to the average but still good given the stresses city trees endure. In spite of these successes, increasing Philadelphia’s tree canopy coverage is no easy task. From 2008 to 2018, the city’s canopy actually declined by 6 percent. As Mindy Maslin, founder and program manager for PHS Tree Tenders, points out, “without citizens planting trees, that number would be way worse.”

For communities such as Hunting Park, even a few trees can make a noticeable difference.  A 10-year strategic plan for the neighborhood identifies protecting and enhancing open spaces as one of seven goals. “Over and over again, residents have told us that planting trees is important,” says community organizer Gabriella Paez, who worked with Maslin to develop the first bilingual (English and Spanish) Tree Tenders group in Hunting Park. Now, 50 residents have been trained, and PHS has expanded its bilingual program across other neighborhoods, with Paez often serving as translator.

Sixty-year-old Anibal Figueroa, who grew up in Puerto Rico in an area abounding with fruit trees, has eight trees that border the building he owns and lives in at North American and West Bristol Streets. All were planted by Esperanza. “I feel like I can breathe easier with trees around me,” says Figueroa, who works in the construction trades. “Sitting under a tree and sharing the shade while playing dominoes is the best thing around.”


Community partnerships account for much of PHS Tree Tenders’ success. Folks like Paez and Velez serve as tree ambassadors, knocking on doors, selling the benefits, and connecting residents to PHS resources.  That’s the only way to do it,” Maslin says. “You need tree champions, people who can rise to the fight.”

On the November workday in Hunting Park, Goldberg and Santiago, a 14-year-old resident of nearby Franklinville, joined this fight with their fellow Esperanza Tree Tenders. As the pair dug a shallow but wide hole in the sidewalk pit, Paez, the group leader, explained that the London plane should be planted only as deep as its root flare, about 8 inches down. Any deeper, she says, and “you’re going to bury the tree and kill it.”

The bareroot tree, the eighth that the Esperanza crew has placed on this stretch, was requested after the homeowner admired the tree that had been planted for a neighbor. “That’s the ripple effect,” says Velez, who dropped by with water and mulch. “That’s what we hope will continue to happen as we plant more and more trees.”

Jack Halligan, a 29-year-old second-year pediatric resident at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, held the sapling straight while others in the group gently filled the planting hole with soil to cover the roots. “I’ve heard about PHS planting trees in the city,” says Halligan, a self-described tree hugger who showed up in his blue hospital scrubs. “I didn’t want to miss it this time, even though I had a night shift. Also, I wanted to spend some time outside of the hospital in the community that I work in.”

About 45 minutes later, the London plane was watered, and all eight volunteers joined the “mulch party,” as Paez calls it, spreading wood chips. “I feel good,” Santiago says, surveying the first tree he has ever planted. “But it was a bad idea to wear white shoes,” he says with a grin, looking down at his dirt-splattered Puma sneakers. After the tree was staked, Paez left a care sheet tucked in the homeowner’s door. “You should all
be so proud,” she says, beaming at her charges.

“Tree Tenders is a remarkable program,” Paez continues. “It’s truly impacting lives every day. As soon as you plant a tree, it changes the way the block looks and the way the environment feels. Trees also change people’s perspectives on the community and help residents feel better about where they live. That is the power of trees.”

Lini S. Kadaba is a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. To find out how you can join in tree planting and care in your community, go to PHSonline.org/programs/