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Between high-rise buildings and motorways, there is little space for nature in urban areas. But for the past 17 years, the Onondaga Earth Corps has worked to change the concrete environment of cities for the better through planting trees.
“Green industry in general is underrepresented, and the role of green industry in urban settings in particular,” said Program Specialist Kate Littlefield, a SUNY-ESF graduate who has been with OEC since September.
Since 2005, OEC has been helping young adults in the Syracuse area make a difference in their community through environmental services. The program, which hired 58 new youth members in 2021 alone, is active in a variety of local environmental projects, including tree planting initiatives, park beautification, and the construction of stormwater management systems.
“We’re a non-profit organization in the city that employs a lot of community members from typically underserved areas,” Littlefield said. “We hire people in Syracuse to do the work in their own communities. Instead of the city hiring a contractor, they hire us, which is cool because it’s kind of a closed system.”
Young people join OEC either as members of the youth program, which includes all members aged 16-18, or as members of the young adult program for those aged 19-25. Both programs have an “earn-to-learn” system, meaning all members are paid as employees and earn an hourly wage while building landscaping, leadership and public relations skills.
Members typically work seasonally, either spring, fall, or summer, and are encouraged to return for multiple seasons and eventually take on leadership roles, according to a form on the OEC website.
“Crew members have a job here,” said Megan Gorss, an administrative assistant at OEC who is also a SUNY-ESF graduate. “They get paid, it’s a normal job, but beyond that, a priority of the staff and the organization in general is to provide services that connect crew members with other organizations so that they can continue to be successful in general. ”
In the past, Gorss said, these services have included helping members find jobs with other environmental organizations, helping members with college applications, and even working to obtain a driver’s license for a member whose job search required one.
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Recently, OEC hired a Personal Development Coordinator to help members achieve success outside of their work with the organization. This position, a full-time position, is currently being filled by a former youth member.
Once hired, members work in teams to perform essential local environmental services such as weeding, mulching, planting and tree pruning. Much of their work occurs in areas of Syracuse where urban forestry has been significantly neglected due to redlining and other community issues, Littlefield said.
They said these formerly segregated low-income communities and communities of color tend to be hotter, that there are higher rates of asthma due to more airborne pollutants causing upper respiratory problems, and that there is more flooding due to a lack of green infrastructure .
“So all of these things and more are big environmental justice issues that OEC is actively working with the city and other groups to address, and I would say that’s one of the biggest things,” Littlefield said.
The goal of the city’s Urban Forest Master Plan, a 20-year program for public tree planting and tending, is to increase the percentage of tree cover in Syracuse across the board, Gorss said. A commitment to environmental justice and the fair distribution of trees throughout the city is the only way to achieve this, they said.
In addition to planting trees, the OEC makes important tree care contributions to the Urban Forest Master Plan. The plan indicates that the Syracuse area will need 700 trees removed annually, and the maintenance efforts provided by the OEC reduce the likelihood that trees will need to be removed.
“One thing I’m really proud of is pruning,” said Eh Moemo Qui, team leader at OEC. “We cut down a lot of trees. Some of them grew under wires and we cut through there. Of course, it doesn’t look pretty after you cut a tree in half, but you have to do it to prevent the tree from growing through the wire and causing future problems.”
Initiatives like Qui’s pruning campaign may seem small, but they are critical to the Urban Forest Masterplan.
The plan was drafted by the Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation, and Youth Programs, OEC, and a steering committee made up of representatives from other local groups, including SUNY-ESF. She describes OEC’s pruning program as “substantial” and estimates that between 2012 and 2020, OEC was responsible for 65-70% of Syracuse’s public tree plantings. Last year, the organization planted 1,471 trees and shrubs in the city and surrounding areas.
In 2022, OEC hopes to strengthen local programs like this rather than expand beyond the Syracuse area. This includes continued work at places like Schiller Park and the Onondaga Creekwalk, as well as the network organizing rain gardens and green infrastructure sites.
“We have so many gems of parks in Syracuse, but they haven’t been tended to for so long, which kind of discourages people from taking advantage of them,” Littlefield said. “So in a way we’re playing catch-up, but they’re such great resources and they’re spread out all over town. I think people forget that in Syracuse themselves they can find nature. So many people don’t even know about Burnet Park or Schiller Park and there’s just a lot of cool stuff there.”
Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF students can get involved with OEC in a variety of ways, either as members or as volunteers. The organization runs several volunteer events throughout the year and has a working relationship with both universities, Gorss said.
“I’ve heard from ESF professors that OEC isn’t as involved as they would like to see, and I would agree that there’s a lot of room for partnerships,” Littlefield said. “Logistically we have to sort out a few things with that, but we often do volunteer events for ESF – we’re happy to do that for SU too.”
Published on April 25, 2022 at 00:44