A young Samira Malone loved to escape the scorched streets by her Outhwaite Homes and visit relatives in the shady suburbs.
“I always loved riding my bike under trees, playing underneath them, seeking refuge in the shade when it’s a million degrees out,” said Malone, now 27. “I remember looking up at the trees and being amazed at how small they made me feel and almost protected.”
Now Malone’s trying to protect the trees in turn. She recently became the first employee and director of the Cleveland Tree Coalition, an alliance of 56 government bodies, conservancies, tree companies, schools, hospitals, community development corporations, and other groups, even the Cavaliers. The coalition hopes to reforest the Forest City, especially its poorest, barest neighborhoods.
That’s a tall task. According to the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, Cleveland’s canopy shrank by about 400 acres from 2011 to 2017, or from 18.8% to 17.9%, a percentage less than half of Pittsburgh’s or Cincinnati’s.
From the coalition’s start in 2015 through last year, the group planted or gave away nearly 21,000 trees, which should mature to cover nearly 316 acres. But it will have to accelerate to reach its goal of a 30% canopy by 2040. That’ll take sowing about 28,400 trees per year through this decade and maintaining them afterwards.
We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees. In fact, it’s the other way around. It takes lots of money to grow them.
Some officials are trying to help. Since 2019, City Hall has spent $1 million per year to plant and maintain trees. In 2020, the county began giving nearly $1 million per year in grants to communities and nonprofits for trees. Recently, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown earmarked $1.5 million for the coalition.
Still, the group says it needs another $8 million over the next 10 years to meet its goals. Some of the money might come through Brown’s pending Neighborhood Trees Act, which would invest $2 billion by 2027, mostly in the neediest places. Malone hopes to persuade other funders that trees boost racial justice.
Like so many other valuables, trees are much scarcer in poor minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. According to the county, Goodrich-Kirtland Park has just 7.6% cover and Central 12.1%, far less than Kamm’s 30.6% and Euclid-Green’s 35.5%.
“That’s by design,” said Malone, who blames displacement, disinvestment and redlining.
She’s competing for funds against many urgent causes. She says trees are slow but profitable investments. “It’s going to take time, but they’ll benefit generations. Trees play such a huge part in our lives.”
According to a study by Illinois’s Morton Arboretum, they provide a remarkable range of benefits. They absorb carbon, carbon dioxide, pollution, and floodwaters. They give off oxygen. They reduce depression, asthma, bronchitis, obesity, and diabetes, and other diseases that plague needy neighborhoods. They slow drivers and cut crime. They shelter and feed many creatures. They attract shoppers, unite neighbors, and boost satisfaction with life.
In the summertime, as Malone learned young, bare neighborhoods can be several degrees hotter than shady ones. But the Morton study says that trees can cool them by nine degrees.
Overall, the coalition estimates that Cleveland’s remaining trees provide $28 million in benefits per year.
Malone comes from a long line of activists and public servants, mostly teachers. She grew up feeling, “I had to do something that healed my city.”
She graduated from East Tech and Cleveland State, getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees in urban planning. She worked at MidTown Cleveland from 2019 to 2022, lastly as neighborhood planning manager.
There she oversaw the planting of 175 trees at Dunham Tavern and in public rights of way. She helped plan a remake of East 66th Street with more public and private trees than before. She also served on a city task force trying to revive the advisory Cleveland Tree Commission, disbanded in 1992. This May, council members Brian Kazy and Kerry McCormack introduced a bill for the plan.
Last year, Crain’s Cleveland Business named Malone to its yearly honor roll of “20 in their Twenties.”
Malone rents in St. Clair-Superior and hopes to buy there. She works in the downtown office of one of the coalition’s organizations, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a nonprofit helping to preserve the countryside and green the city.
Another coalition member is Holden Forests and Gardens. Its head, Jill Koski, said she’s “thrilled with Samira’s leadership appointment. The role leverages her commitment to environmental equity and her expertise in community building.”
The coalition also includes Cuyahoga County’s government. Mike Foley, the county’s sustainability director, said of Malone, “She seems bright and capable and gets urban forestry.”
Like many other good causes, trees are being promoted by a wide range of local groups. Malone said, “It’s a strength to have a ton of different organizations, but let’s make sure the left hand is talking to the right. Open up the doors of our organizations. It’s going to take the power of all of us to get the work done.”
One of her first duties will be to oversee a strategic plan for the coalition. She thinks that the plan may call for at least one more employee.
As a child, Malone often drew and painted pictures of trees. Recently, her mother unearthed one of those paintings, framed it, and gave it to her for good luck in the new job.
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