Urban Forest Project aims to map city trees and show their value

Rapid Growth Media

Steve Faber and Lee Mueller want to change how people interact with Trees.

That large tree in your yard is worth some money. Next time you’re raking leaves, try to remember that.

More than 1.5 million trees exist within the Grand Rapids city limits. Each of these trees provides value to our community and thanks to the new Urban Forest Project, that value can now be measured in dollars.

The Urban Forest Project is a new initiative of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, operating in partnership with the City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Urban Forestry Committee. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation provided funding to launch the project in December with a $253,825 grant to be spread out over two years.

Steve Faber, Executive Director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, asks, “How do you provide a different way to talk about the green infrastructure we all take for granted?” 

This question acted as the inspiration for the Urban Forest Project. The goal is to engage the community in growing a larger, healthier urban forest, which is defined as the connected system of trees throughout an urban environment. No tree is isolated from another, but joined together as part of one ecosystem.

This spring, the City of Grand Rapids spent $200,000 planting nearly 800 trees in an effort to increase the urban canopy, the layer of trees visible from above. It’s estimated that the tree canopy in Grand Rapids covers roughly 30% of the city. A goal has been set to increase the canopy to 40% by the year 2020. In order to achieve this, an additional 200,000 trees will need to be planted.

The investment will be worth it. According to a study done by the Davey Resource Group, the City of Grand Rapids receives $3.60 in returns and benefits for every $1 spent on planting and maintaining trees. Benefits to the community that trees provide include:

  • Lower energy costs due to shading in the summer and heat retention in the winter
  • Increased carbon dioxide sequestering
  • Reduced storm water runoff and stronger protection of the city’s waterways
  • Improved air quality, as trees absorb pollutants such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide
  • Decreased costs for road repairs
  • Greater beauty and ambiance in our neighborhoods, increasing property values

The three main aspects of the Urban Forest Project will be an interactive citizen tree map, an online web resource center and community engagement and education. 

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks hired Lee Mueller in May to serve as the coordinator of the project. He most recently worked for the Greening of Detroit managing large-scale green infrastructure projects, including tree plantings. Mueller holds degrees in forestry from Michigan State and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist and a State of Michigan registered forester.

The interactive citizen tree map on the Urban Forest Project’s website operates on a customized version of Azavea’s OpenTreeMap software. Users will be able to add trees to the map’s database by entering the type of tree and its location. When the dimension is also added, the software will provide a dollar value of the tree’s annual ecosystem services.
Grand Rapids is the fifth city in the country to use this tree-mapping program. It’s also the smallest city to use it, and the first in the Midwest.  

Between active partners like the City of Grand Rapids, the East Hills Council of Neighbors, Calvin College, Aquinas College and others, there are currently 17,000 Grand Rapids trees already mapped and stored in a database. With the estimated 1.5 million trees in the city, this amounts to only slightly more than one percent already mapped; yet Mueller is not concerned.    
“I don’t look at it as a goal to get every tree mapped, but to get people to interact with their urban forest and to understand the benefits trees provide,” he says.

People will be able to add comments or stories to the tree map, and share trees on social media sites. Users can also search by species, location, size and more. Mueller admits he’s unsure how people will interact with project and says, “The project has an ability to take on a life of its own.”

Data from the site is for everyone and can be downloaded for reports or presentations to classrooms, neighborhood associations, committees and other groups. “People might use it for really unusual things and that’s good,” adds Faber.

The three main benefits in having a citizen tree map in Grand Rapids is that it will become a good way for people to interact with the urban forest on a basic level, it will alert us to potential issues with our trees like a new invasive pest outbreak or drought conditions and, finally, it will serve as an advocacy tool for saving and supporting trees.  

In addition to hosting the tree map, the Urban Forest Project website will act as an online resource center with features such as the following:

  • An “Ask the Forester” section where different community members and professionals will answer based on the question
  • Information on how to plant, identify and care for trees
  • News and up-to-date information about the status of the urban forest in Grand Rapids 
  • Opportunities to help grow the urban canopy and advocate for the urban forest
  • A calendar of events to include workshops and partner volunteer opportunities

The website resource center and the tree map are expected to be online before the end of July.

The third part of the Urban Forest Project focuses on community engagement and educational opportunities. The group will soon be offering mini grants as one component in this area. Funded by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s two-year grant, these mini grants will be given to individuals and businesses for tree-related activities up to $500, or for a certain number of trees planted on public property. Applications can be found online starting in August with 10 grants to be awarded this fall to coincide with October NeighborWoods month, which is a month-long national celebration of trees supported by the Alliance for Community Trees.

Other community engagement and educational opportunities include:

  • Training workshops on how to map trees
  • Tree mapping and planting events
  • A citizen forester program to train people on how to become tree experts
  • Advocacy campaigns
  • Tree sponsorship opportunities

Mueller says he plans on mapping all of the trees planted by Friends of Grand Rapids Parks and hopes that others will soon start mapping the trees in their yards, parks and parkways.

The Urban Forest Project will offer its first tree-mapping workshop on August 9 at the East Hills Neighborhood Association building at Cherry Park. Anyone can participate, but Mueller encourages other neighborhoods to host their own workshops as well.
If you want to meet Mueller or find out more about the project, a good opportunity would be the annual Friends of Grand Rapids Parks fundraiser, the Green Gala, on August 23. 
Faber and Mueller are curious to find out how the community will interact with the Urban Forest Project. If nothing else, they anticipate that it will provide a greater awareness of the benefits trees provide and inspire people to plant more.

Heidi Stukkie is our Do Good editor and a freelance writer, graphic designer and marketing consultant. She is currently finishing her B.A. in Professional Writing and Journalism at Grand Valley State University. She advises everyone to finish college when young because doing it in your forties is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. Heidi is slightly obsessed with the news and not much happens in the world she’s not aware of. You can find her on Twitter at


Steve Faber, left, and Lee Mueller, want to change how people interact with Trees.

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