It’s Time: Ecological Restoration Beyond the Trees

Reimagining urban spaces—looking beneath the canopy to nurture communities and embrace sustainable futures.

Published: May 29, 2023  |  

Conservationist and ecologist


Harrison Watson explains the redlining process and its impact on low-income communities.


Each year, 1.9 billion trees are planted around the globe en masse. Some trees are planted to enhance the aesthetic appeal of a neighborhood, while others are sown with the aspiration of creating a greener tomorrow for future generations.

Research has found that the world may have room for a trillion more trees, breathing new life in. Galvanized by these flashy findings, billions worldwide push to plant a trillion trees in their front lawns and backyards, neighborhood parks and office buildings, deserts, and cities. 

Over the past ten generations, America has undergone significant development. Around 40% of the U.S. population now lives in crowded concrete jungles. Humans have never been lonelier. 

Socio-economic disparities, particularly within cities, are wider than the Earth’s equator. Climate change and global warming scorch us all, especially the socio-economically disadvantaged. We yearn for the green in a world that is gray. So, we gather to plant a trillion trees and race to bring forth forests that will shade our suffering. But, to realize mature urban forests, we will require a bit of pause and expanded awareness.

Growing up in the city, I admired trees. I looked up to their canopies, bending backward until I fell over in awe of their reach. For a Black boy from the deep south, it was more than a dream come true, watching the sun rise over the Amazon Rainforest several years later. The Amazon pulls down over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.

However, trees alone do not make up the rainforest. Beneath the canopy, I walked over worts, mosses, ferns, and bushes. I traced vines that climbed those old giants painted by fungi. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with bushes sprouting in clearings, the grass beneath my feet.

When we plant a tree, we exercise our ability—our right—to imagine. A seedling is an opportunity to envision the Amazon in my city from my backyard. For others, it may be an opportunity to build a bird’s nest, a tire swing, or a treehouse.

With ambition, we may imagine a shady spot during a heat wave, a source of food to stave off famine for a family, a photosynthetic ally to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, or the key to world peace. But how much of that imagination occurs with native forbs—like clovers, sunflowers, daylilies, and milkweed—from where we are? How many of us imagine the forest gathering moss?  

Trees symbolize patience and wisdom, which are both derived from experience. In the soils beneath the forest floor lie legacies of succession, as carbon and nutrients feed the forest we appreciate.

Pioneering annuals were pushed down by hardy perennials. Patient trees living by the season were once rambunctious sprouts competing for space and resources. Amidst the battle, some succumbed, while those who remain bear the enduring scars of those challenging times.

In our tumultuous world, it is understandable that we do not have the bandwidth for further disorder and wildness, but wildness and disorder are the medicine we need. Our country is fixated on the idea of manicured appearances—our lawns are cut short and forever fertilized, our hedges trimmed, and our trees bagged, boxed, and potted. 

At this moment, lower socio-economic groups remain constrained to historically redlined districts. Such rigid socio-ecological control cannot be sustained. News of violence rushes across our feeds as floods run through the streets. Abandoned lots are proliferating across low-income communities. Our trees are wilting from pests and disease. 

This time of social fracturing is the signal for a new beginning: to sow a seed, you must break the earth. We can look for a game plan in Singapore, which began this journey first with their Garden City. Let’s call our representatives and tell them to support the American Teacher Act for the teachers that tend to our future.

Help release our children’s teachers from the shackles of the test-obsessed curriculum by advocating for the More Teaching Less Testing Act. How can we expect our children to play in the regenerative potential of cities without the enthusiasm for and lesson plans of their colorful ecologies? 

Reciprocity is a fundamental link that prevents the forest from becoming a graveyard. 

We can support ecological restoration in cities by coordinating community clean-ups with the environmental protection agencies of our municipalities. Under each piece of trash lies native treasures for birds, bees, and a trillion microscopic wildlings. We can organize mutual aid networks to create material, emotional, and spiritual stability between ourselves and our neighbors. Together these solutions support an undeniable truth; a healthy ecosystem cannot breathe without robust communities.