Reviving Detroit's Legacy: The Journey to Reclaim the 'City of Trees' Nickname

Many people know Detroit as the "Motor City", but Detroit was also once referred to as the "City of Trees" because of the city's extensive boulevard system and the many trees that once lined its streets and parks.

This nickname and its reputation can be traced back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In the late 1800s, Detroit began a significant boulevard construction effort. Under the leadership of people like Mayor Hazen S. Pingree, the city undertook extensive efforts to beautify the streets and add green spaces. Pingree, who served as mayor from 1890 to 1897, was also known for his tree-planting initiatives. He believed that trees could enhance the city's beauty and improve public health. As a result, thousands of trees were planted throughout Detroit during his tenure.

In the early 1900s, the city's broad avenues and streets were lined with trees, and its numerous parks were lush with greenery, earning it the "City of Trees" nickname.

Contributing Factors of Detroit's Tree Loss

However, between 1950 and 1980, its estimated that around 500,000 trees were lost due to a variety of factors that included:

  • Dutch Elm Disease: In the mid-20th century, Dutch Elm Disease, a devastating tree disease, hit North America. This disease ravaged American elm trees, which were commonly used in urban landscapes across many U.S. cities, including Detroit. The disease led to the removal of thousands of trees in the city.

  • Urban Development: The expansion and development of the city also meant that many trees were removed to make way for roads (Ex. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956), buildings, and other infrastructure. This is a typical story for many cities undergoing rapid growth and industrialization.

  • Economic Decline and Population Loss: The latter half of the 20th century was marked by significant economic decline in Detroit, especially with the evolution of the auto industry. This shift led to population loss, abandoned properties, and reduced maintenance. Overgrown and dead trees were often not cared for, and some fell or were removed due to safety concerns.

  • Lack of Replanting Efforts: A combination of dwindling city finances and other pressing priorities meant that tree replanting was not always a focus for the city.

In the early 2000s to mid 2010s, even more trees were lost due to the Emerald Ash Borer.

Decade Population Notes
1701 Around 100 Detroit founded
1800 1,650
1810 2,211
1820 1,422
1830 2,222
1840 9,102
1850 21,019
1860 45,619
1870 79,577
1880 116,340
1890 205,877
1900 285,704 Ford Motor Company founded in 1903
1910 465,766
1920 993,678
1930 1,568,662
1940 1,623,452
1950 1,849,568 Dutch elm disease and, all in 1956, Ford moved Admin HQ to Dearborn, the last Detroit Streets Railway streetcar was shut down and many tracks were eventually paved over, and the Federal Aid High Act passed which lead to the federal interstate system beginning to be built through Detroit
1960 1,670,144 Dutch elm disease, federal interstate system built through Detroit
1970 1,514,063 Dutch elm disease, federal interstate system built through Detroit
1980 1,203,368 Greening of Detroit founded in 1989
1990 1,027,974
2000 951,270 Emerald Ash Borer disease detected in 2002
2010 713,777 Emerald Ash Borer disease
2020 639,115

Reforesting the City

In recent years, however, there have been concerted efforts to reforest and rejuvenate Detroit's urban canopy. Several organizations and community groups like Greening of Detroit (founded in 1989) have engaged in tree planting events, aiming to restore the value of trees in the city.

Benefits of Trees

Benefits of trees can include:

  • Improving air quality
  • Regulating temperature by providing shade
  • Reducing energy costs for buildings & homes
  • Absorbing CO2 from the air
  • Breaking rainfall to improve stormwater drainage
  • Making cities quieter
  • Providing habitat for wildlife
  • Improving mental health
  • Encouraging being outdoors
  • Promoting social interaction
  • Increasing safety
  • Boosting community morale
  • Increasing property values
  • Buffering wind

Getting Involved in Our Neighborhood

My wife and I decided to help.

About a year ago, we went for an evening walk and jotted down on a spreadsheet on one of our smart phones the precise location for every city berm (the grassy area between the road and sidewalk) spot where we thought a tree should go, which totaled about 200 trees in the immediate blocks surrounding our home. We attempted to submit our list to be included as part of the city's "10,000 Up!" tree planting program, but were unsuccessful in being added to their planting list.

But as luck would have it, we got invited by our friends Rich and Janessa to The Greening of Detroit's Sip and Taste on August 22nd, 2022 and found out that Greening was looking for spots to plant in Southwest Detroit, but didn't know where to plant…and serendipitously, we were able to provide them with what they needed, they subsequently put our neighborhood on the Spring 2023 planting list, and we managed to get 130 new trees planted along our streets on March 23rd and 25th thanks to the assistance of various Greening staff like Jenna Johnson and Christina Ridella along with many volunteers.

As the trees bloomed and the leaves came in during spring, our neighborhood felt transformed!

It was such a success that Greening invited us to speak on behalf of our community during their Greening Bus Tour on June 21st, 2023, which I was happy to do since Jen was out of town.
Jaacob Bowden and his wife Jennifer Giroux were champions in helping to organize the planting of 130 new trees in Hubbard Richard
Looking Ahead

We still have a number of spots to plant. We're planning on marking those spots later this summer with Greening and, hopefully, our neighborhood will then be added to their Spring 2024 planting schedule, at which point we would conceivably have 100% berm infill in Hubbard Richard.


This will be so great for our neighborhood and it's my hope that what we're doing can be replicated throughout the entire city in order that Detroit, once again, becomes "The City of Trees".