As former executive director of Baltimore Tree Trust (BTT), Mark Conway rans a non-profit committed to restoring the city's urban forest and making Baltimore a healthier and more beautiful place to live, through increased tree plantings, community engagement, and advocacy.
Prior to joining BTT, Mark served Baltimore City as the Deputy Director of the Mayor's Office of CitiStat where he used data analytics and program management to advise the mayor on the management and operations of the city. While completing his master's degree in public policy at the University of Maryland, Mark conducted research at the EPA on high impact, low-cost solutions for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
I was raised in the Bronx, New York amongst what I thought were a ton of trees for an urban area. Looking back, I now know that New York had a lot of room for improvement, but I didn’t feel at a loss for tree cover at home. Whenever I go back to my old neighborhood I marvel at the once towering trees that now line the streets. They have grown into beautiful giants! I didn’t realize then how much I would come to appreciate their role in my childhood. As a kid, I’d hang on the lower branches and could almost reach the nests of birds who made them their homes. Now, the trees have grown so large that I probably couldn’t reach most of the canopy without professional equipment!
In a way, I think my childhood experiences have colored my view on what Baltimore’s urban canopy can be. Upon moving to Baltimore, I immediately noticed city streets that were completely treeless, especially in low-income communities. I was shocked that you could look down a street in East or West Baltimore and not see a single tree on the horizon. I decided that I wanted to do something to change that, and that is where my story with the Baltimore Tree Trust began.
I appreciate that some people get excited about trees for trees’ sake, but I try to be a bit more pragmatic about our need for urban trees. Trees provide a long list of public health benefits and ecosystem services. They reduce stormwater runoff and maintenance costs, improve air quality leading to a decrease in cases of asthma and respiratory disease, increase physical and mental health among residents, reduce road noise, increase property values, store carbon, reduce the heat island effect, improve energy efficiency, and are even associated with lower crime rates. I hate to suggest that trees are the silver bullet for all our problems because it seems cliché, but we really can’t ignore how trees benefit our cities and improve the look and feel of our neighborhoods.
Additionally, we rely on a close relationship with the general public; we wouldn’t be able to reach and sustain our goal of a healthy 40% tree canopy without the buy-in and participation of local communities. As a city, we’d need to plant roughly 25,000 trees per year to reach a 40% canopy, but to date, all the organizations in Baltimore City combined have yet to plant more than 10,000 trees in a given year. Since I started at the Tree Trust we’ve set our sights on planting 10,000 trees per year as an organization. That said, the trickiest part of planting 10,000 trees isn’t the planting, it’s the maintenance.
The regular management and maintenance of thousands of street trees is impossible without reliable stewardship from those who live in the neighborhood. Although we maintain our trees for two years, we encourage communities to take ownership of street trees to ensure proper maintenance. However, we have learned that before we can expect neighborhoods to buy into our mission we have to understand the needs that already exist in these communities and figure out how we can play a role in resolving them.
For instance, we often come across communities that have the desire to maintain trees but don’t have the skills to carry out regular maintenance. So, we offer our TreeKeepers program to train Baltimore citizens on how to do basic tree maintenance on city trees. Other communities suffer from joblessness and recidivism and are in desperate need of career opportunities to break the cycle. So, we’ve created our Urban Roots Apprenticeship (URA) to train the next wave of tree care professionals while greening their communities. Individuals who complete the URA program are connected to career opportunities that allow them to make a living wage in a field that directly benefits their neighborhood.
If I accomplish anything during my time at the BTT, I hope to break the myth that everyone who advocates for trees is a stereotypical tree-hugger. In my mind, trees should have a regard similar to roads, bridges, and tunnels. They serve a vital role in the city’s infrastructure and ecological balance and they connect people to their neighborhoods. They are much more than large plants to ornament our streets. Trees can be used as tools for air and water quality improvement along with an extensive list of other benefits. They can help solve many of our city’s problems and look great doing it! We should capitalize on that.
My favorite success story with Tree Trust is the one that we are currently writing! Neighborhood by neighborhood, we are transforming Baltimore with trees, and the support for our work has only grown from one community to the next. Not only are we are improving the look and feel of Baltimore city streets, but we’ve also taken the charge to directly impact the lives of the men and women who work with us in hopes of entering the tree care industry. I’m excited to see how this journey plays out!
If I have a day or a few hours to spare, I like to spend it in Patterson Park! If I have more than a day, I love to go camping and hiking at Greenbrier State Park and Cunningham Falls State Park.
Formerly executive director of Baltimore Tree Trust, Mark Conway is now executive vice president of Chesapeake Conservancy.
Cunningham Falls State Park is located in the picturesque Catoctin Mountains, opportunities including swimming, hiking, fishing and canoeing are available.
Greenbrier is a multi-use park providing many kinds of recreation. The 42-acre man-made lake and beach draw many visitors who enjoy swimming, canoeing, hiking, picnicking, fishing and hunting.
Patterson Park is a public park in Baltimore featuring paths, ball fields, swimming, and a mix of historic and natural delights.