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Branching out to residential lands: Missions and strategies of five tree distribution programs in the U.S.


Vi D. Nguyen
Sarah K. Mincey
Jessica R. Sanders
Erica Smith Fichman
Mike Duran-Mitchell
Sarah Lumban Tobing



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Northern Research Station


Urban Forestry & Urban Greening


Residential lands constitute a major component of existing and possible tree canopy in many cities in the United States. To expand the urban forest on these lands, some municipalities and nonprofit organizations have launched residential yard tree distribution programs, also known as tree giveaway programs. This paper describes the operations of five tree distribution programs affiliated with the Urban Ecology Collaborative, a regional network for urban forestry professionals. We analyzed the programs' missions, strategies, and challenges as reported through surveys and interviews conducted with program staff. The programs were led by nonprofit organizations and municipal departments in New York City, NY; Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA; Providence, RI; and Worcester, MA. These organizations focused their tree distribution efforts on private residential lands in response to ambitious tree canopy or planting campaign goals. We assessed these programs through the framework of urban forests as social-ecological systems and discuss the programs' biophysical, social and institutional contexts. Programs face principle-agent problems related to reliance on individual tree recipients to meet goals; their institutional strategies meant to ameliorate these problems varied. Differing organizational and partner resources influenced the programs' abilities to perform outreach and follow-up on tree performance. Programs attempted to connect with diverse neighborhoods through free trees, targeting areas with low existing canopy, and forging partnerships with local community groups. Given tree recipients' demand for smaller flowering or fruiting trees, as well as lack of resources for tree survival monitoring on private lands, program leaders appeared to have turned to social measures of success – spreading a positive message about trees and urban greening – as opposed to biophysical performance metrics. We conclude with suggestions for outcomes monitoring, whether those outcomes are social or biophysical, because monitoring is critical to the sustainability and adaptive management of residential tree programs.


Nguyen, Vi D.; Roman, Lara A.; Locke, Dexter H.; Mincey, Sarah K.; Sanders, Jessica R.; Smith Fichman, Erica; Duran-Mitchell, Mike; Tobing, Sarah Lumban. 2017. Branching out to residential lands: Missions and strategies of five tree distribution programs in the U.S. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 22: 24-35.


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