Portland, July 24th, 2013. Supporters kicked up their heels at the completion of a four-year project to plant 5,000 trees along the I-205 Multi-Use Path. Throughout the late-afternoon party in Lents, people passed by—on bike and by foot—taking the path home from work, heading to the next TriMet stop, or simply strolling or taking a leisurely bike ride. The travelers made a diverse and inspiring background for the party, which was hosted by Metro, Friends of Trees, and ODOT.

After listening to bluegrass by the Fellow Travelers and eating tamales from Micro Mercantes and salad from New Seasons Market, it was time for the evening’s speakers to cut the artistic cake from Pastrygirl.

“A New Forest Grows” cake made by Pastrygirl

Then there were reflections and thank-yous. ODOT Region 1 Manager Jason Tell explained that one of the first things he did after becoming Region 1 Manager seven years ago was tour the I-205 path that “ran through so many diverse neighborhoods.” He decided ODOT needed to make improvements. Some, such as new path lighting, have been accomplished with federal stimulus funds. “But the real significant thing we’ve done,” Tell said, “is plant trees.”

It’s satisfying to consider how “good the trees will be for the people who live in this area and how good they’ll be for the environment, too.”

The I-205 corridor is known to have high levels of air pollution, and PSU research has shown it is one of the hottest urban heat islands in the area. Not surprisingly, it also has the fewest trees. Unfortunately, heat and pollution contribute to poor health, and these factors are concentrated in areas where residents are more likely to have limited incomes, and where many immigrant and disadvantaged families live.

So it’s fitting that a good number of the 2,000 volunteers who helped plant the 5,000 trees came from diverse communities in East Portland and the greater Portland metro region, including I Have a Dream Oregon, the Association of Slavic Immigrants, Tzu Chi Academy, and neighbors involved in the East Portland Action Plan.

From left, Zach McKay (Portland OIC), Jason Tell (ODOT), Bob Stacey (Metro), Rex Burkholder (former Metro Councilor), Ricardo Moreno (Verde), Jim Chasse (EPAP), Scott Fogarty (FOT), and FOT mascot Garry Oak

The project began with a statewide agency (ODOT), a regional agency (Metro), and a nonprofit (Friends of Trees) working together toward a common goal: to improve livability, address equity issues, and improve human and environmental health by planting trees along the 16.5-mile I-205 Multi-Use Path. The nonprofit Verde, which serves communities by building environmental wealth through social enterprise, outreach and advocacy, was among the dozens of agencies, businesses, community groups, and nonprofits that partnered on the project.

Ricardo Moreno, Verde Landscape Program Manager, said Verde was proud to be a part of the project, which provided living wages with benefits and educational training to their crew members. “They take a lot of pride in their work,” Moreno said.

Another nonprofit partner, Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, provides education and job training and employment opportunities to disadvantaged or at-risk youth. Partnering on the I-205 Multi-Use Path project created eight green jobs each planting season for Rosemary Anderson High School students.

FOT’s Gustavo Rojas with FOT board member and J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. Communications Director Nancy Buley

One of the first Portland OIC students to work on the I-205 project, Zach McKay, spoke on behalf of his fellow students. He announced that he’d just received a job offer from New Seasons Market and looked forward to beginning his employment there. He thought it had probably helped to include his work with Friends of Trees on his resume.

“I actually fell in love with spending my time with the volunteers, getting to meet them,” he said of the I-205 planting project. “And it gave me so much more respect for the environment.”

How did ODOT, Friends of Trees, and Metro form a partnership?

Scott Fogarty recalled Friends of Trees planting on public land at Delta Park in 2006 with funding from a Portland BES Community Benefits Opportunity grant, which led to another planting on a public right-of-way in N-NE Portland. ODOT’s Shelli Romero called Fogarty to see if she and Tell could join the planting. Both came and were impressed by how many volunteers showed up to plant despite the cold, rainy weather.

The following January, when Friends of Trees planted with J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. near the I-205 Multi-Use Path, Tell again joined the planting, and the conversation between Fogarty and Tell began in earnest about how the two groups might work together to green ODOT property along the I-205 corridor. They just needed to find funding for it.

Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick with FOT mascot Garry Oak

That’s where Metro stepped in.

With the passage of Measure 26-80 in 2006, then-Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder asked that $15 million be allocated for 2:1 challenge grants for partnerships between Metro and community groups. He’d seen what these kinds of coalitions could accomplish.

After a series of grant submissions were rejected because they didn’t meet the requirements, “I was beginning to fear the bar was set too high,” Burkholder said. ”This led me to ask Friends of Trees to submit a grant because I knew they had the capacity, the connections, and the vision to come up with something creative … and boy, did they ever!”

The creative and visionary part? The three partner groups had to consider trees as capital assets, which few, if any, had done before. As opposed to gray infrastructure such as bridges, which depreciate over time, green infrastructure like trees will appreciate as the trees grow, providing more benefits to the community.

Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, whose district includes the I-205 Multi-Use Path, said he was pleased that Metro played a role in the project. “It’s the kind of model we should set for other roadways in the region and statewide.”

Noting that so many diverse groups and people came together to green the path—and how many will now appreciate and benefit from the new trees—he said, “Something was planted here besides trees: The seeds of community.”