Nonprofit plants trees – and hope – in neighborhoods of need

by Mark Cassini on October 23, 2020

Community Greening is on a mission. It makes no secret about its desire to plant more native canopy trees all over Palm Beach County.

But the Delray Beach-based nonprofit has another goal in mind: to further social justice by making sure that underserved communities get the green that they deserve.

Mark Cassini and Matt Shipley started Community Greening in 2016 to address a need they saw to not only bring more green to urban areas but also to bring it to the people who traditionally have not had access to the means to green up their neighborhoods.

“Matt Shipley is the third generation from Delray and I’m from the Midwest,” Cassini said. We knew that people wanted more trees here. We’re losing trees in South Florida. With all of the benefits of native trees, they are one of the cheapest technologies that we can start implementing to reduce the risk of climate change.

“We plant Florida native trees and a lot of fruit trees,” he said. “We have different programs to accomplish this. One of them is planting orchards in food insecure neighborhoods.”

And Community Greening’s impact is broadening beyond Delray Beach.

“We’ve partnered with three different cities, including Delray, Boynton Beach and West Palm Beach, to put in an urban orchard of 50 to 75 fruit trees on public property,” Cassini said. “We work with the community to identify what types of fruit trees they want and we maintain and prune them. And it’s just open for anyone.”

He said they also have a residential program in which they will plant native or fruit trees on a resident’s property as long as they have a grant for that area.

Community Greening has a goal to plant 10,000 trees in Delray Beach. That’s a huge goal, but one that Cassini and Shipley have broken down into achievable smaller goals.

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“Our 10,000 tree campaign is based on 2,000 trees a year for the next five years,” Cassini said. “And that’s going to increase the canopy from 23% to 28%.

“Our campaign has different components to it,” he said. “There is a popular one for residents that invites residents to come to the giveaway called ‘Trees and Trunks’ where we have 200 trees. That’s another way to increase the canopy on private property.”

Green jobs campaign for youth

Another campaign enlists the work of urban youth and minorities in and around Delray Beach.

“We have a workforce development program, which is the Youth Tree Team. That’s funded by the Children’s Services Council,” Cassini said. “The purpose of that is to get the youth involved in urban forestry and arboriculture. There’s a lack of trained professionals to work in the field, and [we’re] getting them on that career track.”

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This aspect of Community Greening is not just to get youth involved but also to expose many in the urban community to the environment both as an alternative way to live as well as to potential green jobs that they can pursue for a career path.

“There’s this whole other component to why we started this, which is the racial justice side of eco-benefits,” Cassini said. “That’s because trees aren’t evenly distributed in our communities. They really correlate with demographics of race and income level.”

He expanded on this idea as a national phenomenon. “Across the country, the tree canopy is much lower in neighborhoods that have lower income levels and more minorities,” he said.

“There are a lot of reasons for that,” Cassini said. “They actually experience less clean air, increased flooding and higher energy usage. Our whole focus is really to get the tree canopy up where it’s needed most.”

Palm trees not what they seem

Community Greening purposely avoids working with palm trees. While they aren’t opposed to palms, Cassini and Shipley say they aren’t considered canopy trees. For this reason, palms don’t really have the eco-benefits of native fruit trees.

There’s one other reason: Palm trees aren’t actually trees.

Shipley likes to remind people that, although they are beautiful and popular in South Florida, “The palm tree is actually a grass.”

“They’re called monocotyledons or monocots,” he said. “That means it produces one leaf, versus a dicotyledon, which is the regular canopy tree, that produces two leaves.

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“The other thing about palms in comparison to the canopy trees is that palms actually take a lot more money and maintenance,” Shipley said. “Palm fronds themselves are constantly falling, and if they’re above a parking lot they can demolish your car. And then the coconuts can literally kill people. So the city is having to pay a lot of money to maintain these palm trees.”

He contrasts the high-maintenance palms, which he said also generally consume more water, to the canopy trees.

“If you take one of the canopy trees that we planted that grows 6 to 10 feet tall, and you give it one good pruning, after a year you really don’t have to mess with that tree for a really long time. It might be five years later until you have to give it another pruning,” Shipley said.

That means monetary savings to the city, both in terms of potential damage as well as paid maintenance for the trees. On the residential level as well, canopy, not palm, trees can save money.

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“With a large tree over your house, the amount of air conditioning that you have to pay for is less,” Shipley said. “That isn’t happening in lower-income urban neighborhoods. A lot of times, people can’t afford expensive air conditioning, so you see them sitting outside, underneath their one palm tree that they have, trying to stay in the shade.”

A natural alternative for teens

The Youth Tree Team involves students who work for Community Greening over the summer planting and maintaining trees. They are also introduced to green jobs.

Team member Ford Derastel, 18, of Delray Beach, said he appreciates the experience with Community Greening since it meshes with his own long-term goals.

“What got me in this program is the idea of giving back to the community, as well as helping the environment, because that’s something I want to get involved in,” he said. “I’m trying to start my own nonprofit organization too.”

Derastel is learning first-hand how the process works.

“I’m learning how a nonprofit functions from this opportunity,” he said.

Ayana Pearce, of Boynton Beach, is another member.

“My mom saw Community Greening on Facebook, and she told me that she had signed me up for community service,” she said. “But when we went on to the website, I saw that it was an actual job where you get paid. I didn’t know that!

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“But even if it was just community service and not a job, I would still have come. I’ve always admired nature from inside the house. I thought it would be a good thing to actually be a part of it and see what’s actually going on.”

Pearce said the experience is giving her a different perspective on life.

“I’m more of an inside person, but being able to be outside gives me the best of both worlds,” she said. “It gives me a balance, so I’m not constantly inside or constantly outside. I’ve never been the dirt type, but I’m surprised that it’s actually nice.”

The green job angle is also opening her eyes.

“I plan on being an architect, and I do know there are landscape architects, so I plan on doing a little study in that,” she said.

Cassini said he is thrilled at the reception that Community Greening has been receiving.

“From the beginning, we’ve gained support from city government, from the business community, from neighborhoods and schools, because it was something that everyone could really participate in,” he said. “Everyone can feel the immediate gratification of planting a tree.”

To dedicate a tree to someone for $25, visit