Urban forest I: Push to plant 4M trees in Memphis promises natural health benefits

It’s a misty morning on December 9, and a vacant lot at the corner of J.W. Williams Lane and Decatur Street in the Memphis Medical District is waking up. Interstate-240 towers above the patch of land, a small church sits across the street and around the corner is a newly planted community garden.

The lot was recently acquired from the Shelby County Land Bank by a group of organizations and individuals with a bold plan to plant 4 million trees across Memphis in the next 10 to 15 years.

“This is a proof of concept for a much larger idea,” said Mike Larrivee, co-founder and executive director of The Compost Fairy, which works to keep compostable materials out of landfills. As an urban ecologist, he is a technical advisor and operations lead for the tree planting initiative.  

He said that the effort to re-canopy Memphis can lead to better public health and other improvements to the environment.

Saplings are staged in a staggered pattern to mimic a forest's natural growth pattern. This area will quickly mature into a dense urban forest and act as a buffer between the residents and Interstate-240. (Cole Bradley)

The first 106 trees are strategically positioned around the nearly two-acre lot in the Memphis Medical District. Another 24 are being planted at a lot on Kerr Avenue in South Memphis. In a decade, those 130 trees will be unrecognizable in a sea of green.

At the Decateur Street lot, the partners plan to add a wooded promenade with paths and natural benches facing the church and a denser urban forest with a walking trail adjacent to the interstate.

Volunteers from half a dozen organizations worked in groups of three to dig through concrete, brick, trash, roots and dirt before carefully placing the scraggly winter saplings in the ground.

They won’t be scraggly for much longer. The trees are all native species, most are big canopy trees and all are hardwoods. That's important because Memphis has lost many of its big trees.

Big trees eat through concrete and bricks and their big roots can grow past Memphis’ damaged topsoil into the nutrient-rich African silts below. Those big veins and the limbs and leaves they support filter tons of pollutants from the air, water, and soil and give off tons of oxygen in return.

“Living under big trees is kind of a big deal,” said Larrivee. When trees breathe, they filter the air underneath them.

“Everyone wants to complain about how hard it is to grow stuff in Memphis soil. This is the product of 200 years of abuse."

“One 60 to 70-foot hardwood makes 26 tons of oxygen a day…[under the branches] is an oxygen-rich, humid environment that’s been cleaned of particulates," he said.

Big trees also provide shade and help reduce rising temperatures in urban centers. They act as sound buffers against busy streets and highways. They support native fauna, in particular, the insects that form the base of our food chain.

They create spaces for community members to connect, encourage exercise, reduce blight, and increase property values, which are all important factors in Memphis’ developing medical district.

Those benefits translate into improvement in health and wellbeing and serious savings in healthcare costs.


A tree-rich environment has been linked to improvements in immune systems, cardiovascular systems, and mental health; declines in obesity and asthma; and healthier babies. The death of trees has been linked to the inverse with a decline in health metrics across the board.

But municipalities aren’t always thinking of green infrastructure as an integral part of health infrastructure.

Once the hardwood capital of the world, Memphis long ago stripped the majority of the city’s timber. Heavy investment in cotton and other industrial crops further degraded the land. Non-native species and smaller plant species were seen as more attractive for landscaping but had far fewer environmental benefits.

As the city developed out, green infrastructure was rarely intentional with the parkways being one notable exception. While cities like Detroit have had a forester on the city payroll since the 1800s, Memphis got its first city forester this year with the hire of Mark Follis. 
Urban ecologist Mike Larrivee explains how to properly plant a native hardwood at a December 9 planting event. (Cole Bradley)
But the tide is changing. The City Beautiful initiative is heavily involved in revitalizing neighborhood environments, and the newly formed Memphis Tree Board is helping advise the City of Memphis Park Services and Neighborhoods department on intentional green development.

There is also a host of private and non-private sector collaborations and projects, like the 4 million tree initiative.

“Locally [we] have seen a number of people approach planning principles such as urban greening from more of a health perspective. It is a growing movement though and one that is a relatively recent phenomenon,” said Austin Harrison, program associate with Neighborhood Preservation Inc.

A recent white paper by The Nature Conservancy highlights the siloing that often permeates city governments and how that lack of cooperation restricts the growth of green environments.

A parks and recreation department isn’t likely to be thinking from a health perspective, and the health department isn’t thinking about trees.

Trees are viewed as a luxury rather than a prescription for community health and are susceptible to being scrapped from the city and state budgets in favor of education or emergency services. Outside of city parks, green development often falls to individuals and commercial entities who create their own visions in their own silos.

The result is that in a time of increasing need, cities are actually spending less on trees than in previous decades. Across the U.S., 4 million urban trees are lost annually and most aren’t being replaced.

What trees are left are heavily concentrated in richer neighborhoods. Poorer areas are left with little canopy cover to combat hazardous urban conditions, which adds a layer of environmental justice to an already complex issue.

Memphis has been no exception. But a group of public and private partners are looking to encourage more equitable and sustainable green growth.

“The goal is to make the city more livable for everyone, not just in the suburbs. And using native plants, not just things that look pretty,” says Theo Davies, Green Leaf Learning Farm’s farm manager and the site lead for the Kerr Avenue lot. 

While Larrivee is the brain behind the original concept and has done the majority of the heavy lifting for the first phase of the initiative to plant 4 million trees in Memphis, there is a strong network of partners at work.

Young Bridge Builders volunteers learn planting techniques from volunteer master gardeners with the University of Tennessee. (Cole Bradley)

NPI helped launch the project with grant writing, networking support and expertise. Volunteers hail from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Bridge Builders, the Medical District Collaborative, and master gardeners from the University of Tennessee.

City Beautiful provides tools and other material supports. The Kresge and Grizzlies foundations provide the bulk of the funding. There are other partners like The Works CDC and individuals like a large-scale farming expert. Guidance and participation from residents is also a key component.

Key South Memphis partners including Knowledge Quest, the Green Leaf Learning Farm and The Works Inc., have come together to bring the Kerr Avenue lot to life. 

This cross-sector collaboration means economic, social, environmental and health perspectives are all considered. 

“It is a natural evolution for these groups to come together…to clean up trash, replenish the soil and replace the canopy of trees and other native plants that make up our natural environment in Memphis.

We are bound together by the mission to create a healthy environment for those who live next door, in the neighborhood and in the city as a whole,” said Mary Baker, NPI’s community and neighborhood planning specialist.

There are further environmental advantages unique to Memphis and the Mid-South. Memphis is well known for excellent water and also boasts a deep layer of nutrient-rich soil, plenty of rain and a long growing season. As a result, hardwoods grow 50 percent faster in the city than anywhere else in the country, Larrivee said.

And there’s no shortage of unused land for those hardwoods. According to Larrivee, Memphis holds about 40 thousand acres of vacant land and about 85 percent of it is turf. It’s damaged, but it has potential for restoration.

Bridge Builder Madison (L) and partner Sadie (R) plant trees in a Medical District lot. Mahal Burr, Bridge Builders' CHANGE coordinator, says tree planting is an opportunity for their youth to learn about environmental justice and the importance of green infrastructure. (Cole Bradley)

“Everyone wants to complain about how hard it is to grow stuff in Memphis soil. This is the product of 200 years of abuse,” said Larrivee.

“The soil here was amazing before we threw it away. We’ve lost 80 percent of it to the atmosphere through poor land management. At the top layer, all the good and healthy stuff is gone, and what’s let behind is crap soil and a bunch of people who don’t know how to fix it.

Trees will do that. All you have to do is let them grow.”

This 4 million tree initiative is one of many efforts across the city to rehabilitate and repurpose the unused land, reduce blight, and improve social, mental, and physical health outcomes through improvements to the physical environment.

In a series of articles, High Ground News will explore some of these other endeavors and this larger movement to improve quality of life in Memphis by investing in natural assets.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.