How to Increase Urban Trees in Bellingham: Lessons Learned From Friends of Trees

Friends of Trees is a nearby, outstanding example of how planting more urban trees can positively impact our communities. Expanding urban trees is an important complement to reforestation projects if we are to successfully face the climate crisis and build community resilience.

As summer heats up, I am relieved by the shade of alders and various conifers that I walk past near Boulevard Park. The cool breeze that sweeps over Bellingham Bay feels so much sweeter when not crowded by the direct heat of the sun.

During the pandemic it became obvious how much we needed to be among trees to relieve tension. Local trails became unusually packed with hikers and bikers. People were just happy to have somewhere to visit outside of the house. Many of us are lucky to live where parks, forests and trails are so easily accessible.

But not all of us are so lucky.

In some areas across Whatcom County, especially in its northwestern corners, we have open fields and farms where little or no trees are present. There also exist many neighborhoods in Bellingham, Ferndale and surrounding smaller cities starved of the health and well-being that urban trees can provide.

That’s where urban trees planted by volunteers comes in. We have an excellent example of what that looks like from Friends of Trees, a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon!

Introducing Friends of Trees in Portland, Oregon

Friends of Trees, an volunteer-based organization founded in 1989, dedicates itself to the planting, maintenance and education of urban trees. They have planted over 800,000 trees in several communities across Oregon and southern Washington since their mission began.

Friends of Trees has evolved greatly over the years. It started with one man, Richard Seidman, who was inspired by American Forests’ Global ReLeaf Program. His desire for more trees in his community gradually expanded into an impactful staff of 25 taking on projects across Oregon and southern Washington.

Their mission, which started as merely planting trees, has evolved into community building. They work hand-in-hand with local businesses, land stewardships, educational programs and other nonprofits to help equitably populate their cities with healthy urban trees.

Although they can’t plant trees everywhere, Friends of Trees focuses on planting trees where it most counts, such as in low canopy neighborhoods and riparian restoration projects.

urban trees forest canopy

Riparian Tree Planting

Their Green Space program is a wonderful example of restoration plantings within riparian habitats. Riparian tree planting typically occurs within an eighth of a mile of a stream or river.

Planting trees in these areas supports ecosystem health, cooling important rivers and streams to ensure populations of fish and other aquatic animals stay at a healthy level.

Friends of Trees host an average of 70 riparian restoration events during the year, planting an average of 1,000 to 2,000 native shrubs and trees. These events are attended by businesses, churches, friends, and volunteers.

This component is similar to long-established riparian work in Whatcom County by Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association. Planting trees near streams re-establishes salmon runs as well as improves the quality of water and watersheds that promote diverse ecosystems that we cherish so much.

salmon river

Tree Plantings in Urban Neighborhoods

Geographically, like us, Oregon is blessed with hundreds of acres of forests across their state. So Friends of Trees dedicates most of their resources to the planting of urban trees. Their Neighborhood Tree program is designed to tackle green infrastructure in a supportive and equitable way.

Why do we need trees in cities? Well, they aren’t just pretty to look at. Canopy coverage in cities can reduce the temperatures of adjacent buildings. Not only that, but trees drink so much water, they help to prevent flooding as well as unhealthy run off into the ocean.

But like many things in society, urban trees are not equally distributed. Friends of Trees collaborated with Portland State University’s Urban Design program to establish how much less urban canopy coverage occured in historically low income neighborhoods of Portland.

Equitable canopy cover has become a priority of Friends of Trees, ensuring that people of all backgrounds and identities within the city can benefit. As you can imagine, tree care in an urban environment requires a lot of time, care and resources. Trees planted in cities need more water, more nutrients, and more pruning than their forestry counterparts. Care has to be taken to prevent pavement or utility damage. Arborists and landscape companies can provide that kind of urban tree support, but at a high cost.

To combat this, Friends of Trees works with several non-profits, community leaders and neighborhoods to provide such support to neighborhoods that don’t have the resources on their own.

The Neighborhood Planting program allows people to order trees from catalogues of approved city trees. All trees are only $35 (or with a scholarship, free!) for a six foot tall seedling plus related services. They bring the tree to your house or street, the crew will dig the hole, plant it, mulch it and continually check up on it to ensure it grows healthy for you.

Building Roots in a Community

Friends of Trees also works with many different local organizations to increase awareness, education and action regarding trees.

They work with K-12 schools, exposing children to the science behind what makes trees so magnificent and how they positively impact their surroundings.

For example, they created an environmental sciences program at Rosemary Anderson High School in Portland. First, a class is assigned a parcel of public land. Students spend the first half of the year studying the land’s ecosystem, then select native plants and trees to green the property. Near the end of the school year, they hold a hands-on planting party with teams of volunteers, seeing through the goals they set at the beginning of the year.

The Cooling Bottom-Line About Planting Urban Trees

The next time you pause under a tree in the afternoon heat this summer, remember the feeling of relief, the ease of tension. The next time you take a car ride out to a hike, or take a bike ride, remember that the shade each tree provides can be closer to home than it already is.

Whatcom Million Trees Project can learn from the leaps and bounds that Friends of Trees has made in Oregon in bringing tree-oriented education and action to our communities and cities. Whether it be introducing more K-12 kids to the positive impact they can have on our environment, or working hand in hand with cities to give easy access to urban tree plantings.

Friends of Trees shows us that not everyone has that similar access. Our cities can benefit from an equally dispersed canopy. Planting more trees in our cities is not only feasible, it is important for our community health and ecosystem to do it responsibly and equitably.

Friends of Trees demonstrates to us at Whatcom Million Trees Project that we too, can make a positive change in our local communities. Whether it be improving watershed health, protecting and expanding our forests, or greening our neighborhoods. We know that it can be done.

And, hey, hopefully we can get some trees above my apartment, because my fans no longer cool me.


Please help us achieve our mission. Donate to the Whatcom Million Trees Project Fund at Whatcom Community Foundation. Or join us as a volunteer or intern. We’d love to have you on our team!

Own a business and want to distinguish yourself with your customers by doing good? Please contact us!

Comments? Questions? Ideas? Please contact us or leave a comment below in this blog post.

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Carter Thulin is a contributing writer for Whatcom Million Trees Project. He is a graduate of Western Washington University, with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. An aspiring artist, writer and freelancer, you can find more about his creative work here.

1 thought on “How to Increase Urban Trees in Bellingham: Lessons Learned From Friends of Trees”

  1. This sounds like a project we need. I really liked the idea of getting landowners trees that can be planted for a small cost and helping them with the whole project. As I always seek out the shade of trees to walk, bike and sit under it just makes sense to reforest our cities in this time of rapid climate change.

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