Using Trees as Tools for Sustainable Urban Communities

Michigan Tech Peace Corps Master’s International (PCMI) Forestry alumna Daniella Zanin Pereira has built on the roots of her Peace Corps’ experience in Panama to continue to give back to U.S. communities that she has worked with in urban forestry projects. Her PCMI experience, which combined master’s research and Peace Corps service, reinforced a vision in her work of healthy, sustainable communities who pay attention to their environment.

In Panama, Daniella worked in a rural community on projects that addressed environmental health issues. She worked on agroforestry projects, which included organizing ten families in building an organic farm and training facility, helping indigenous farmers get agricultural loans even though their land was a collective, reintroducing native trees that artisans used in the village and teaching how to sustainably harvest them. In addition, she developed eco-tourism opportunities, taught teak and mahogany plantation management and business, and helped rebuild a gravity fed water system.  

After Peace Corps, Daniella found a way to make a difference in urban spaces, using trees as a tool to engage people to learn about nature and build a sense of community. Now with 80 percent of the U.S. population located in cities, urban forestry projects are a critical piece of environmental resource management.

After graduating from the PCMI program, Daniella found a job in New York City as the Project Manager of Bronx Forest Restoration--for the Natural Resources Group at The City of New York Parks and Recreation. This project focused on the restoration of natural areas and employed experts ranging from wetlands specialists to ecologists to foresters. With an annual million-dollar budget, collectively they were able to accomplish a lot. While in this position, Daniella was able to help shape and launch The MillionTreesNYC (MTNYC) Initiative, a city-wide effort to improve air quality by restoring land and increasing the tree canopy. This was initiated by Mayor Bloomberg and Bette Midler and funded by donations from various organizations and individuals, including the Rockefeller family. Two other PCMI alumni from Michigan Tech, Marge Ely and Casey Jogerst Rosengarden, worked for NYC parks, too, and because of it, were part of this initiative.

Daniella eventually became Deputy Director of two environmental training programs where she oversaw 70 participants: the MTNYC Training Program and Green Apple Corps. Green Apple Corps provided recent undergraduates with the opportunity to do fieldwork in the areas of forestry, environmental science, and restoration, and then to teach environmental education to NYC students. The MillionTreesNYC Training Program gave youth seven months of training in forest restoration, garden design and building, tree climbing and pruning. At the same time, the program helped participants finish their GEDs, attain drivers’ licenses, and receive 108 credit hours in courses from the New York Botanical Garden. Daniella received the USFS’s Chief’s Award for this program. Since she realized that fieldwork had set her apart from other applicants in her job searches, she wanted to equip others with fieldwork experience that could lead to more career opportunities.

Working in New York City was ideal in many ways, especially due to robust community support, a budget that could support a paid staff that would be part of the restoration’s educational aims, and a diverse team of experts to ensure every angle of an issue was considered. All of this was about to change with her move to Chicago to work for Openlands (http://www.openlands.org/). Daniella was originally from Chicago and, now with two children and a husband, wanted to move back for more family support.

Respected as one of the oldest metropolitan conservation organizations in the U.S., Openlands is viewed as “the gold standard” by some in the conservation community. This organization focuses on the Chicago metropolitan area and is the only organization of its kind in the larger Chicago area, where Openlands has led efforts to protect more than 55,000 acres of land for public parks and forest preserves, wildlife refuges, land and water greenway corridors, urban farms, and community gardens. Daniella joined Openlands to work specifically on starting a tree planting initiative and revamping Openlands’ TreeKeepers® program.

Daniella at a Tree Keeper Graduation (2014)

In Chicago, ash trees had been hard-hit by the emerald ash borer infestation, and in just one season 20,000 had died and needed to be removed from the city’s parkways. The USFS’s tree census estimates a total of 13,000,000 ash trees will be affected, which not only means the continuous removal of trees but also safety hazards resulting from the falling limbs of dead trees. When Daniella was hired, she no longer had the benefit of a 70-person team committed to urban forestry initiatives. She had one person to supervise: herself.

Through Openlands, Daniella has been instrumental in leading various initiatives, such as the Tree Keepers’ education program. Over the course of eight days, citizens in this program are trained by professionals to be arborists serving as the “eyes and ears out on the street” as they take care of their environment. This initiative moves beyond simply planting a tree to actually maintaining the planted trees, making sure they receive enough water and are safe from disease. With aid from the MacArthur Foundation, two additional staff members, and numerous volunteers, this movement to train community TreeKeepers is taking hold. Openlands has also received awards for its part in the Space to Grow and Healthy Schools Campaign, which creates green spaces for students and the larger community. Daniella continues to design environmental initiatives and write proposals for funding opportunities at Openlands. She has creative ideas she is looking to fund, like promoting and maintaining green infrastructure on vacant lots in our metropolitan areas.

Daniella notes that this stage of her career seems like another life when compared to those days when she had just graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. After working as a baker and theater company employee, Daniella found the PCMI Forestry program at Michigan Tech through fragments in her life—from a Peace Corps brochure her aunt left behind to a friend’s comment said in passing. She entered the PCMI program in 2001, where she quickly learned the skills of a forester and was sent off to Peace Corps, where she conducted master’s research on the “Feasibility of Teak Production for Smallholders in Eastern Panama.” Daniella believes the master’s degree in Forestry, substantial fieldwork experience in Panama, and her time at Tech translated into her strong ability to work with teams and communities and to serve as a supervisor right away. Indeed, she possessed the leadership, skills, creativity and resourcefulness necessary to make her vision of urban forestry come true.  

Written by Heather Deering