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Gwen O'Brien and Steve Faber

Gwen O'Brien and Steve Faber.

Gwen O'Brien and Steve Faber.

Gwen O'Brien and Steve Faber.

Gwen O'Brien and Steve Faber.


Friends of Grand Rapids Parks

PO box 3199
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501

Steve Faber and Gwen O'Brien

Steve Faber, Executive Director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks (FGRP), and Gwen O’Brien, Creative Director at Plenty, are passionate about a flourishing urban forest and thriving neighborhood parks in the Grand Rapids community. Their collaborative work on the branding, design, and messaging for FGRP and its initiatives has resonated with thousands, earned well-deserved recognition, and recently, awarded them a grant from Sappi through the national Ideas That Matter Program.
The Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project is an initiative of FGRP in partnership with the City of Grand Rapids to engage the whole community in planting and growing a larger, healthier urban forest.

“The project launched about a year and a half ago,” Faber said. “To keep it consistent from a design perspective, we wanted to work with Plenty because they did such a fabulous job on the look and feel of our organization’s brand and are currently working on a redesign of our original website.”

Steve said community involvement is essential and high-quality design and messaging imperative for the project’s success.

“We couldn’t have done it without Plenty.” O’Brien said, “Steve is great to work as he is full of good ideas. He gives Plenty creative latitude and trusts us to come up with compelling visuals to create awareness and entice people to get involved. We believe in the mission and want our community to get engaged. When you see it all coming together, it makes it all the more rewarding.”

FGRP’s goal for the Urban Forest Project is to reach a 40 percent tree canopy. Currently, Grand Rapids is at 34.6 percent. An urban tree canopy (UTC) is the layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above a city. Two-hundred thousand more trees are needed to achieve this goal in Grand Rapids.

To increase tree plantings in the city, in parks, and private spaces, FGRP knew they needed to multiply the organization’s small staff in some way. Their solution? The Citizen Forester Program, a series of four volunteer advocate workshops, on tree advocacy, tree identification, tree planting, and tree maintenance and pruning.

The first class of six certified Citizen Foresters graduated in July 2013. These well-trained advocates of a growing urban forest are now official Citizen Foresters who can engage and educate our community about the necessity of urban trees, their vital role in the community, and the proper treatment of these valuable urban assets. FGRP and Plenty are proud and excited the Citizen Forestry Program has been met with such enthusiasm in Grand Rapids. Next, their task was to find a way to make the program sustainable. The concept of a Citizen Forestry Toolkit was born; something tangible, enticing, and functional that forester graduates would appreciate and use in their volunteer work.

During a meeting earlier this year with local paper distributor, Quimby Walstrom, O’Brien and Faber were introduced to the idea of applying for the Sappi Ideas that Matter grant by sales representative Amy McGreavy.

“Gwen and I agreed we should do something,” Faber said. “Sappi is a paper company and we’re about growing an urban forest and enhancing parks and public spaces. It’s a good fit.”

Applying for the Ideas That Matter grant entailed “detailing the creative concept, creating mood boards, running the numbers, and explaining how we were going to make the project successful” O’Brien said.

As it turns out, Sappi was really interested in the Citizen Forester toolkit and that’s what they granted. Plenty presented the toolkit concept through mood boards featuring visual representations of kit packaging, a course binder, tree mapping measuring tape, twig pencils, journal notebooks, business cards featuring tree facts, and official citizen forester badges to wear at tree plantings.

“The idea is that the toolkit will be used by volunteers during the workshops, and then given to them to use in the field once they graduate,” Faber said. “Research tells us, by planting trees and preserving parks, we are growing our community. From a triple bottom line perspective, parks are an essential element of sustainability. The environmental benefits of trees are abundant – improved air quality, storm water management, and shading of streets and houses. Quality neighborhood parks help increase property values. Parks play a primary role in attracting and retaining talent; people make decisions on where they live by the quality of life offered.”

Parks and public spaces are where we come together as a community. They played an essential role in our history,” Faber said. “Monument Park (Fulton Street and Division) is where citizens gathered to learn of Abe Lincoln’s assassination. Today, over 3,000 people from all walks of life share the experience of watching movies in Rosa Parks Circle.”

“Parks in cities serve as a positive outlet. Data shows there is a decrease in criminal activity in areas with high-quality parks,” Faber said.

When FGRP and Plenty learned Sappi had granted the Citizen Forestry Project’s toolkit, O’Brien and Faber became excited to move forward with this unique element of the project.

“Quality design is critical to FGRP staying fresh, fun, and intriguing. It helps us change the way people look at trees,” Faber said. “It helps create awareness and attract dedicated volunteers. What we’re doing has garnered local, state, and national attention. It’s innovative and it’s viable. Our partnership with the City of Grand Rapids and Plenty helps make a positive difference in the community, and establishes us as leaders in citizen-driven urban forestry.”
Susan Julien Larimore is a freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids.

Photography by Adam Bird

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