Trees Atlanta hopes to reforest the urban landscape, one planting at a time
"Everyone thinks we're a landscape company," Marcia Bansley, executive director of Trees Atlanta, jokes in the organization's cluttered donated office space in downtown's Fairlie Poplar district. But that's a far cry from the 20-year-old nonprofit's purpose.
Founded in 1984 by Central Atlanta Progress, the Atlanta Commissioner of Parks and the Junior League to address downtown Atlanta's lack of green space, Trees Atlanta's mission is to protect and improve the urban environment by planting and conserving trees. The organization also helps raise awareness about the value of trees, evident in the thousands of signs around town stating, "Another planting by Trees Atlanta."
"Trees are what make Atlanta beautiful," says Greg Levine. Six full-time and two part-time staff members, along with some 1,300 volunteers, work across several disciplines, Levine explains. There are weekend plantings from October through March of 80 to 100 shade trees, in various urban neighborhoods. There also is the maintenance of thousands of "street trees" on sidewalks, in parking lots and other urban areas. On the education front, Trees Atlanta staff and volunteers oversee programs such as NeighborWoods, a four-year-old planting initiative in primarily low-income neighborhoods, and last fall's green space summit.
Trees Atlanta staff have worked with metro area governments to create and enforce tree ordinances that promote preservation and replanting. "That would not have happened without Trees Atlanta," Levine says. "Trees are more in the mindset of Atlanta's citizens and more street trees are being put in because of the organization."
Trees Atlanta's budget was $800 when Bansley, who had been working for SunTrust, applied for the part-time position of executive director. She and a few volunteers put together a board from Atlanta heavyweights such as King & Spalding, Georgia-Pacific and BellSouth. The first tree-planting project was spring of 1986 at Spring Street and Carnegie Way.
The group continued planting in downtown Atlanta, and, when it could raise the funds, worked its way through Midtown, Bansley explains. In 1992, the organization received $4.5 million over four years from the Woodruff Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service to plant 2,000 trees in time for the 1996 Olympics, including in Centennial Olympic Park. That project helped raise awareness of the organization, which today has a budget of $750,000.
"Until then, we had a two-person staff," Bansley recalls. "Then there were articles written about us and people saw what was happening. When things change, people notice, and that helped our exposure a lot."
Today, funding sources are diverse, says Joe Piffaretti, director of development, including individual, corporate and foundation. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation recently provided $150,000 over three years to fund the NeighborWoods program and The Turner Foundation in 2000 funded the organization's map of the last remaining green space inside the perimeter, which documented that more than 50 acres of trees are eliminated daily due to metro area development.
Planting more than 60,000 trees in less than 20 years and educating the public about deforestation, Trees Atlanta "has played a phenomenal role in this city," says board member Tamara Nash, senior manager of community programs for the Georgia-Pacific Foundation. She calls the organization one of Atlanta's best-kept secrets. "The public is not fully aware of the role trees play not only in beautification but in the improvement of air quality."
Public education is one area Bansley looks to focus on in the future. "I want to increase the awareness and the quality of what we're doing," she says. "Our goal is to keep up the good work."
Despite deforestation, pollution and other environmental problems, Trees Atlanta has made measurable progress, she adds. Bansley cites the database of volunteers, the thousands of trees planted, the dozens of neighborhoods that participate in plantings, and the improvement in air quality and pollution in areas shaded by trees. But it's viewing the improved landscape that really illustrates success, Piffaretti says. "I could talk for 30 minutes," he says, "but when people see the before-and-after pictures, they say, 'Oh yeah. Trees Atlanta really does make a difference.'"