Interview with Leda Marritz, Creative Director at DeepRoot, on Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Solutions

DSC_9234.jpgToday’s blog post is an interview with Leda Marritz, Creative Director at DeepRoot, on how their urban tree infrastructure solutions are helping cities be healthier and happier, what is it about planting trees that we miss and what we should be doing instead. Leda joined in 2006 and is responsible for all of DeepRoot’s online and print materials, advertising, writing, design, events, and other creative projects. Some of Leda’s major initiatives have included significant updates to DeepRoot’s online presence, including website enhancements and a strong social media presence. In 2009 she started a company blog called “Green Infrastructure for Your Community,” where she posts three times a week on topics related to trees, soil, stormwater, and company news. In 2011 she became a certified arborist and, in addition to the writing she does for DeepRoot, contributes articles for Next City and Earth In Transition. Leda holds a B.A. from Brown University in Comparative Literature.

1 . Leda, how did you get involved with DeepRoot?

Answer: I started my career in publishing (I studied comparative literature in college), which was a lot of fun but ultimately not for me. I wanted to try something new. When I moved to San Francisco in 2006, I had to decide what that was! I started by searching my alumni network for anyone in the Bay Area doing work I was interested in, which led me to Graham Ray, the CEO of DeepRoot. The timing was really fortuitous, because my background was in marketing and the company had a need for someone to tackle that. I started a week or two later and have been here ever since.

2. How can one become a certified arborist like you?

Answer: You have to pass an exam administered by the International Society of Arboriculture and then maintain the accreditation by getting 10 continuing education units every year. While my day job doesn’t get me out in the field among trees much, I really enjoyed studying for the accreditation and recommend it.

3. How do you define sustainability?

Answer: I’d define sustainability, and sustainable thinking, as being driven by a vision for how something will function, look, and feel 20, 50, 100 years from today.

4. What are the many environmental and social benefits of urban landscaping? What are some of the most overlooked benefits?

Answer: There are so many benefits to urban trees! They help reduce urban heat-island effect and crime rates, and help slow, cool, and clean the rain that falls on paving and then runs into our sewer system. Trees reduce vacancy rates and air pollution, creating a cleaner and more pleasant environment. They’re calming and psychologically restorative; people instinctively want to be where trees are.

Having so many benefits can, in certain ways, be a liability. In a recent interview with Russell Horsey (Development Director of Institute of Chartered Foresters in England) that we published on the DeepRoot blog, he said “If you imagined us as a business trying to market “trees,” we have a product that in some ways does too many good things! As a sector we try to explain all of the things that trees do rather than honing our message and keeping our messages simple. We still use too much technical wording which does not work with the public, politicians and some higher managers, who may manage more than just trees and may not have an arboricultural background.” I tend to agree.

5. What problems is DeepRoot trying to solve through its solutions? What are the major drivers?

Answer:  The U.S. is losing millions of urban canopy cover every year. We’re trying to help stem that loss while also incorporating the incredible ability of trees and soil to clean and absorb water and return it to the atmosphere. In cities, so much rainfall hits the ground and rushes right into the sewer rather than being used to irrigate plants or being saved for other uses. And so many trees are planted in tiny areas, with little or no thought given to what it needs to survive and mature. Green infrastructure (trees, soil, and water) is the backbone of a city’s ecological health.

6. What do you mean when you say ‘Rethink trees’?

Answer: When we say “rethink trees,” we’re trying to draw attention to trees as underutilized, and undervalued, elements of our urban fabric. Most people don’t think about trees much at all – and if they do, they tend to think of them as ornamental. We don’t think trees are ornamental at all – we think they’re fundamental to health and resilient urban design. We want to prompt people to think about trees as essential to smart, economically viable, and successful development. That’s what we mean.

7. The planting of the one millionth tree of the MillionTreesNYC initiative was celebrated. Speaking of quantity over quality, how would you describe the quality of this process? Were they planted the right way? Does simply planting trees, any kind, help? Is there a right or a wrong way?

Answer: I have no firsthand knowledge of how the MillionTreesNYC planting program was run; I’m quite sure they have great folks working for them who truly believe in the cause. And a million trees is a very, very large number! We congratulate them on their efforts and we’re so glad there are people who care so much about trees.

Having said that, it’s true that we can’t just plant our way into a bigger urban tree canopy. To really move the needle on the health of the urban forest, we also need to address how trees are planted. A tree’s size and health are in direct proportion to the amount of soil it has access to. Until we start considering the needs of the tree roots in our development planning – and incorporating room for soil underneath sidewalks, parking lots, plazas, etc. – the trees in those areas will struggle to thrive and survive.

8. How does pollution affect soil health? We’ve heard of phytoremediation. Can it be achieved in urban areas? Have you tried it?

Answer: Pollution can accumulate in soil to levels that are unsafe for humans; I’m not aware of any direct impact to the health of the soil itself. I’ve not heard of any phytoremediation projects being done in urban areas, but there are some great people studying stuff like this – it’s possible I’m just not aware of the work being done in this area.

9. How do you weigh preventive measures against adaptive measures such as seed banks and their gene study?

Answer: First I should say that I’m not an expert in either of these issues, but based on what I’ve seen from my time in the industry, both are important. To protect the future of our communities, we absolutely need to employ preventive measures. But there’s room for all kinds of creative solutions and ideas, and things like seed banks may be one of those.

10. Is mulching the panacea for urban soil health? If not, what is?

Answer: Mulching does a lot of wonderful things for soil health and function; we’re big fans. But it’s not a panacea – nothing is. Instead, we need to take more care of trees and soils at every stage of the planning and planting process. Soil that is healthy should be reused, and soil that is marginal should be salvaged wherever possible. And, above all, we need to give trees enough of it.

11. What do you think Matthew McConaughey meant when he said ‘”It’s not about huggin’ trees…,” he argues. “It’s not about being wasteful, either…,” in an ad for the Lincoln MKZ hybrid sedan? What’s the philosophy here? What’s Deep Root’s philosophy?

Answer: I would never purport to speak for Matthew McConaughey (you’re aware of his naked conga-drum playing episode, right?) on Lincoln Motors! DeepRoot’s philosophy is that trees and soils are elemental to truly sustainable design. We think that trees are essential for the physical, mental, and emotional health of humans (and other living things) and that they should be considered as important as other traditional forms of infrastructure. We’re excited to be a part of making cities more livable.

12. What question do people fail to ask and what would that be?

Answer: People fail to ask, or consider, what they want the site they’re working on to look like in 20, 40, 80 years. Do you envision a beautiful mature tree canopy? If so, you have to play the long game and plan for that tree today.

13. What’s your favorite tree pun? Mine is this – ‘Tree puns are getting old.. We should branch out! *leaves*’

Answer: I don’t know any tree puns, but here’s a non-tree joke: What did the zero say to the eight? “Nice belt.”

I thank Leda for her time and insights. Loved her candidness! I’ve been a fan of DeepRoot since I stumbled upon it on the internet. DeepRoot Green Infrastructure develops solutions to enhance urban forests and surrounding watersheds in city streets, parking lots, campuses, and other heavily-paved areas. I subscribed to its blogs and it started growing on me. And if you’ve read my blog posts in the past, you’d know how I love gardening. Every time I talked about DeepRoot, my colleagues would think I’m selling their products to them. Well, how awesome it is to finally have an interview with them! I’m having a superb weekend! You can read more about DeepRoot on their website, and get in touch with them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

Following are some of my takeaways from the interview.

  • Sustainability when defined with numbers excludes vagueness. It made an impact on my mind, made me think. Tweet: Sustainability when defined with numbers excludes vagueness. It made an impact on my mind, made me think.
  • Everything works in unison, the trees, soil, water and air, to make this planet livable. Urban infrastructure should be based on this. Tweet: Everything works in unison, the trees, soil, water and air, to make this planet livable. Urban infrastructure should be based on this.
  • It’s not just about planting trees, it is about what you plant and how you plant it. Tweet: It's not just about planting trees, it is about what you plant and how you plant it.

My question to you all is, what has made you ‘Rethink Trees’? Please comment below.

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