Trees for Cities is the only UK charity working at a national and international scale to improve lives by planting trees in cities. The organisation has engaged over 80,000 volunteers and planted over 1 million trees since 1993. We caught up with Trees for Cities CEO David Elliott to find out more about the organisation and what drives its leader to work towards healthier, greener communities in the UK.
Tell us, in 20 words or fewer, about Trees for Cities – what’s your mission?
We improve lives by planting trees and transforming green spaces for the people and in the places most in need.
What drives you?
Trees and green spaces are such critical infrastructure in our urban spaces (for example, almost 50% of London is green) and provide us with a vast array of benefits – yet are massively undervalued and under-resourced in comparison to other ‘hard’ infrastructure. What drives us is to make a step change in the support and investment for urban trees so that we can make our towns and cities far more liveable for today’s and future generations.
For me, doing work that is inspiring, important, interesting and innovating is what gets me out of bed and fired up. The mission of Trees for Cities is all of this, and more.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
We recently planting our millionth urban tree, a couple of years ahead of our original schedule. This tree was planted in the grounds of St. Thomas’ hospital overlooking The Houses of Parliament. The location was chosen to signify the huge health benefits that trees bring to our lives: they absorb air pollutants, mask noise, prevent flooding, create spaces for exercise and recreation and help improve our mental health. Indeed evidence has even shown that patients able to see trees out of a hospital window recover on average more quickly than those who can’t!
It’s difficult to say what our greatest achievement is as our fantastic teams are delivering high impact projects in parks, housing estates, schools, hospitals and woodlands all the time, and every one of these interventions can help improve lives – each in themselves are great and long lasting achievements.
What are the challenges you face?
There are many challenges faced in making and keeping our towns and cities green.
One big one is land. There is huge focus on increasing tree cover across the country and political parties from across the divide are in agreement with this. Trees are an essential nature-based solution for tackling climate change, but the scale of ambition is not yet matched by the availability of space. We need to radically rethink how we use agricultural land, brownfield sites, and the greenbelt, to get the most social and environment benefit from the comparatively small island that we live on.
Of course, financing the planting and maintenance of trees is a significant challenge and many local authorities have had to make huge cuts in these areas in recent years. Hopefully, the widespread declarations of climate emergencies will help reverse this trend.
What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited?
It’s all exciting! We are trying to grow and develop many areas of our work to have a greater impact. We are always looking for new ways to step up the scale of our work and this challenge is hugely motivating.
Our schools programme in particular is gaining ever more momentum at present. The opportunity to inspire more and more children to love and nurture the environment couldn’t be more exciting.
Where do you want to take Trees for Cities next?
We want to create a ‘bottom up’ movement of urban tree planters and protectors that can pick up the mantel. If we rely just on the ‘top down’ opportunities provided by organisations like ourselves we are always going to be limited in what can be achieved. Creating a ‘viral effect’ by inspiring, educating and resourcing a new ‘army’ of tree planters is a big part of our plans.
What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?
Care and act.
How is what you are doing inspiring change in others?
We are seeing a massive growth in the interest and demand for tree planting amongst individuals, communities and businesses. Our community tree planting events are often drawing in hundreds of volunteers – despite rain, wind and snow – and that is with us deliberating to keep numbers manageable. I have no doubt that our efforts are inspiring more and more people and organisations to do ‘their bit’. It is the collective effort that is going to make the radical difference.
Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book for our readers?
Two: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, and The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. Both can be read in less time that it takes to watch an episode of Love Island – and believe me, are far better for the soul! No child should leave school without reading these books.
What do you listen to when you’re cooking dinner?
I know what I would like to listen to, but it would generally get vetoed! Instead, Country Hits Radio gets some airing when I have a rare moment of solitude!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
“Living is the six inches in front of your face” – Al Pacino. Although obviously he didn’t say that to me personally, unfortunately!
Can you leave us with who’d be your Eco Hero?
Chris Packham is surely the greatest living Briton? His tenacity and passion never fail to inspire me.
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